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.
1. Kick-Ass 2 Can Only Be a Good Thing.
As a longtime proponent of Matthew Vaughn (well, since 2004) I'm happy to hear we're going to get a sequel. I would guess that Nic Cage will have less involvement, which I'm disheartened to say is a good thing at this point in his career, though ideally they'd find some method for writing off Mintz-Plasse too. I liked him in Superbad and Role Models but the material seemed slightly out of his wheelhouse in Kick-Ass. The film is currently ranked 186th all time on IMDB, and it very nearly cracked $100m at the worldwide box office despite being initially left for dead.
For my money, Hit-Girl is the most innovative character to hit the screen this year. While one could, if one were so inclined, point out a few obvious parallels between the mayhemic Japanese film Battle Royale and Kick-Ass my counterargument would be that Hit Girl's reign of destruction occurs in a largely realistic world. Batle Royale definitely skews more Running Man. Second place on the iconic characters of 2010? Probably Gru from Despicable Me. Hard not to love that guy.
2. Breaking Dawn Gets Graphic?
Word has come down from screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg that they might attempt to show the infamous "birthing scene." This would be an unequivocal mistake. For those not familiar with the Twilight franchise, Breaking Dawn is the madcap finale to the series wherein Bella (spoiler alert) gives birth to a half human, half vampire baby who proceeds to break Bella’s ribs, causing massive internal and external bleeding. Clearly, it's quite the scene. But Twilight has managed to keep the gore down to a minimum, probably to satisfy the core fanbase.
The scene, even in the books, is slightly out of place. Stephenie was clearly feeling her writing oats after the success of the first books and wanted to try a small tonal shift which indicated how much Bella was willing to sacrifice for Edward. But things quickly shift back to non-violent methods, and by the end of the books some fans were even complaining Meyers went too pacifist. What's this all add up to? Well, it would be incredibly easy to sucker in an audience emotionally with this scene, and Rosenberg's Dexter work (and heck, even her Party of Five work) has left her with a deft and capable hand to do just that. But it's the wrong route, especially given the overall story arc and themes presented. This isn't vamp horror, it's a modern romance, and the truly gnarly bloodletting is best left on the cutting room floor.
3. The Meta Effect.
Our friend Adam Quigley at /Film has an interesting article on the overall self-awareness of cinema these days. Citing all levels of cinema, from genius works like Hot Fuzz and Inglourious Basterds to clear parody a la Vampires Suck, Quigley has managed to form a cogent argument on the end of true creativity in cinema. Simply put, if everything references everything else than nothing can be truly new.
So far as that goes, it's an interesting observation, and I'd surmise much of it has to do with the massive communications we're all exposed to on a daily basis. New ideas don't creep out because you're exposed too many old ideas every single day. There are 35 ways for people to reach you, and you can't create in a vacuum anymore. The stoic and hermit creator is gone, replaced by the overly connected and self-referential schmoozer. However, I wonder if we're missing a more elemental point here, referred to by Joseph Campbell's Hero With a 1000 Faces work. Essentially the theory holds that disparate cultures developed eerily similar mythologies. One could make the argument that there are only so many stories to tell, and the current vibe of "been there, done that" is more an indicator of the wealth of stories we have access too ... and not the overall creative level of the medium itself.
4. Liking The Look of Easy A!
I've seen the Easy A trailer half a dozen times, with half a dozen different people, and the reaction has been uniformly positive. When is the last great high school comedy we had? Okay, I'll cede Superbad but that was Apatow raunchiness, not Election or Mean Girls subversion. And Emma Stone feels ready for a big move, as we're in need of a new Julia Roberts. Could this be a rare September classic? Here's hoping.
On that note, I hope you have a weekend devoid of labor.
Check out last week's Movie Musings here
Laremy is the lead critic and senior producer for a website named Film.com. He's also available on Twitter.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Although The Great Buck Howard is not the literal story of the once popular (in the '60s and '70s) entertainer known as the Amazing Kreskin the film makes it known this is a pretty thinly disguised tribute to the man who made 88 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show before fading into obscurity on the dinner theater circuit. Writer/director Sean McGinly who worked briefly as Kreskin’s assistant has reinvented him essentially as Buck Howard a “mentalist extraordinaire ” who once strode in the limelight with numerous TV and Vegas appearances but now plays faded community centers and hasn’t filled a theater in decades. As his new assistant law-school dropout Troy Gable quickly learns it isn’t easy working for Buck who still sees himself as a big star but when a quirk of fate intervenes and he really does get a second chance at the national spotlight neither one is quite prepared for what comes next.
WHO’S IN IT?
John Malkovich is a fine actor but he isn’t exactly known for comedy. As Buck Howard however he has the role of a lifetime and he’s simply amazing wryly funny as the has-been mentalist who would never admit he isn’t still every bit the top celebrity he used to be. Although Malkovich plays him somewhat pompously he’s ultimately quite touching as a celeb who once commanded great attention and still craves it on his own terms. As his new unwitting assistant Colin Hanks drolly underplays most of his scenes with Buck and effortlessly shows the quiet desperation of a wannabe writer who’s not exactly sure what he should be doing with his life. Emily Blunt is lovely as a publicist who helps engineer Buck’s surprising comeback; and there are also small but fun bits with Steve Zahn Griffin Dunne and even Colin’s real-life dad Tom Hanks whose company bankrolled the movie.
In the same sweet but low-key vein of My Favorite Year McGinly paints a portrait of the less glamorous aspect of showbiz when an outsized personality starts traveling on the downside of the entertainment world. Clearly his days with Kreskin gave him an entree into this life and his film is nicely observant and respectful. But still very funny.
The film plays it all a little too safe. It doesn’t seem to want to be anything more than a snapshot of life after huge success has faded; adding a little more complexity might have offered an even richer role for Malkovich. It’s pleasant but there’s not a whole lot of depth.
Buck hypnotizes a large crowd of volunteers but gets sidetracked and neglects to snap them out of it. It’s pricelessly funny and captures the ego of the guy perfectly in the expert hands of Malkovich.