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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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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You know what needs more excuses? Racism and bigotry, which are obviously the first two things that came to your mind when asked that question. And you wouldn't be alone in your thought process: just ask Brad Paisley and LL Cool J. Their new song, "Accidental Racist" (yes, you read that right), is currently causing a maelstrom of hatred across most media outlets. But with every scathing blog post about the misguided song comes a completley earnest tweet of support from one of Paisley's proud fans.
"Accidental Racist" is an ode to the intentional ignorance that many of this country's compatriots hold dear: just because someone is proud of the South and also the Confederate Flag doesn't make them racist. (Sure, and the people most commonly associated with the swastika are merely Sanskrit enthusiasts.) Appreciating something — like, say, where you come from, your history, etc. — doesn't make you a bad person. But considering Paisley's song disregards empathy, is totally insensitive to history, and shirks responsibility for the serious harm our own country caused an entire race of people, in this case it sure as s**t makes you one ignorant, priviledged, insensitive motherf**ker.
Call it tough love — whether you're a Black Yankee or a white man living in the Southland (even though, Paisley, being from West Virginia means you would've been a part of the Union, not the Confederate), misguided isn't a good look on anyone. Which is why it's so infuriating to still see these sort of ideas being bandied about as acceptable in 2013.
So if you're feeling like a nice long afternoon of hair-pulling and general hatred of society is just what the doctor ordered, then saddle right up to this here post and check out this sampling of just some of the people who are totally unaware that Paisley and LL's "accidental" racism is actually just regular racism disguised as cultural misunderstanding. Hashtag equality, y'all. Oh yeah, some of the language may be NSFW.
The Accidental Racist Who Believes Hate Should Be Universal:
Everyone is pissed at Brad Paisley for #AccidentalRacist, but not one word about LL Cool J's part in it. It should work both ways, right?
— Matt Douty (@mdouty) April 8, 2013
The Actual Racists Who Are Totally Mad You Stole Their Thunder, Brad:
@bradpaisley How About You Sing This Song..WHITEY AINT DOWN IN THE HOODYOU ARE ALONE BLACK & RACIST & YOUR LIFE IS YOUR FAULT #CMA #OPRY
— HockeyGuy (@HockeyGuy) April 8, 2013
I absolutely love Accidental Racist by Brad Paisley feat. LL Cool J. It's been a song that has needed to be done for a while. #speakstruth
— Hannah Thacker (@thack3) April 8, 2013
OMYGOSH I LOVE BRAD PAISLEY SO MUCH! I SAID IT! Everyone freaking out about #AccidentalRacist but he's just telling like it is! #notracist ❤
— Kenzi McConnell (@KenziLouise) April 8, 2013
I love Brad Paisley's new song Accidental Racist #SueMeForIt
— DanielMacak (@HoosierDaddy233) April 8, 2013
Love @bradpaisley. Always have, always will. This is country music, and we do... talk about REAL issues! #Pride
— Valerie Wire (@Valerie_Wire) April 8, 2013
Love @bradpaisley & @llcoolj new single 'Accidental Racist' well done!#southernpride #wheelhouse
— Keith Stubbs (@thekeithstubbs) April 8, 2013
The Accidental Racists Who Like it In Spite of Themselves:
I don't know what you guys are talking about. I hate Brad Paisley's music but I LOVE THAT SONG. It has an incredible message to it.
— Sassy Ms. Bravesluvr (@ebravesluvr) April 8, 2013
The Somebody Finally Gets It! Accidental Racists:
@llcoolj @bradpaisley I love the new song. I think it's about time someone got the conversation started. My faith in music has been restored
— Crystal Clement (@crysisafangirl) April 8, 2013
Love Brad Paisley's new song. Somebody finally understands.
— James Rhodes (@JamesRhodes50) April 8, 2013
@llcoolj Mad respect, love you and @bradpaisley's new single.
— Raaid Bacchus (@roy_id) April 8, 2013
Couldn't love @bradpaisley anymore right now ... Being proud of who you are doesn't make you racist
— Drew Vernon (@DrewVernon) April 8, 2013
I honestly love @bradpaisley and LL cool J's song!It's exactly 100% how I feel! Idk why so many people no matter their race don't like it!
— Kasey Anderson (@kaserslynn) April 8, 2013
The Accidental Racists with Refined Tastes:
i really like Brad Paisley's new song but i dont love LL Cool J's part it's not bad it just doesnt fit the song
— Dylan (@magnoliafan82) April 8, 2013
@bradpaisley new song with @llcoolj "Accidental Racist" is getting some terrible reviews, but i love it. Glad someone's finally #honest.
— Angela Lyvers (@ang518) April 8, 2013
So I listened to "accidental racist" um I LOVE the message but the song sucks. As a Brad Paisley fan, I'm disappointed.
— K. Marquez (@KirstieAmberM) April 8, 2013
@bradpaisley please tell me you're not on twitter and reading these horrible tweets. WE LOVE YOU AND THAT SONG BRAD.
— Kelli McShane (@kellimcshane) April 8, 2013
@bradpaisley Hi Brad. just saw your accidental racist vid and loved it! :) I don't see it as racial at all! The opposite!! :) Love you!
— glittergirl(@glittergirlD43) April 8, 2013
Ignorance may be bliss, but it can't be an excuse for everything. Especially not s**tty music.
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More:Brad Paisley New Song 'Accidental Racist' is (Whoops!) Completely Racist The 2013 Academy of Country Music Award WinnersRating the Grammy Awards: From Best to LL Cool J
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Director Alexander Payne's (Election Sideways) new film opens over sprawling landscape shots of Hawaii's scenic suburbia accompanied by George Clooney's character Matt King summing up his current predicament: "Paradise can go fuck itself." The reaction unfortunately is reasonable.
We pick up with King an ancestor of Hawaiian royalty in the middle of deliberations over a plot of land handed down through his family over generations. With every uncle aunt and cosign whispering opinions into his ear King is suddenly presented with an even greater problem: taking care of his two daughters. A boating accident leaves his wife in a coma forcing Matt to take a true parenting role with his young socially-troubled daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who was previously shipped off to boarding school. Matt awkwardly hunts for the emotional glue necessary for the mismatched bunch to become "a family " but matters are made even more complicated when Alex reveals that her mother was cheating on him before the accident. Murphy's Law is in full effect.
With The Descendants Payne continues to explore and discover the inherent humor in life's melancholic situations unfolding Matt's quest for understanding like a road movie across Hawaii's many islands. Simultaneously preparing for the end of his wife's death and searching for the identity of her lover Matt crosses paths with a number of perfectly cast side characters who act as mirrors to his best and worst qualities: his father-in-law Scott (Robert Foster) who belittles Matt for never taking care of his daughter; Hugh (Beau Bridges) an opportunistic cousin who pressures Matt to sell the land; Alexandra's dunce of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who always has the wrong thing to say; and Julie (Judy Greer) the wife of the adulterer in question. Colorful yet real Matt experiences a definitive moment with each of them yet the picture never feels sporadic or episodic.
Clooney and Woodley help gel these sequences together as they observe experience and butt heads as equals. Clooney's own magnetism stands in the way of making Matt a fully dimensional character but he shines when playing off his quick-witted daughter. His reactions are heartbreaking—but it's the moments when he has to put himself out there that never quite ring true. But the script by Nat Faxon Jim Rash and Payne gives Clooney plenty of opportunities to work his magic visualizing his struggle as opposed to vomiting it out like so many of today's talky dramas.
The Descendants is a tender cinematic experience an introspective and heartwarming film unafraid to convey its story with pleasing simplicity. Clooney stands out with a solid performance but like many of Payne's films it's the eclectic ensemble and muted backdrop that give the movie its real texture. The paradise of Descendants isn't all its cracked up to be but for movie-goers it's bliss.