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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WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Set in occupied France during the waning days of World War II Inglourious Basterds jumps back and forth between different storylines over the course of several chapters before bringing them together for one intense utterly preposterous climax.
The “Basterds” of the film’s title refers to an elite group of Jewish-American soldiers assembled by Lt. Aldo Raine a no-nonsense descendent of Southern moonshiners whose assignment for his troops is simple: Each of them is tasked with gathering the scalps of 100 dead Nazi soldiers before the war is over. With each shocking act of retribution the Basterds perform word spreads of their savagery and by the time they arrive in occupied France their reputation is known to every enemy soldier.
Meanwhile Shosanna Dreyfus a French Jew who narrowly escaped the Gestapo death squad that murdered her immediate family has relocated to Paris and established a new identity as the owner of a local cinema. As Nazi patrols blanket the city she toils quietly under an assumed name awaiting the day when her own chance at retribution will come.
The destinies of Shosanna and the Basterds converge when Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels decides to hold the premiere of his latest propaganda film Nation’s Pride at Shosanna’s theater. With the aid of Bridget von Hammersmark a German film star secretly working as a double agent the Allies learn that no less than the entire Nazi High Command including Hitler will be in attendance. Confronted with the opportunity to deliver their unique brand of justice to the Fuhrer himself and end the war in one fell swoop the Basterds concoct a bold scheme to infiltrate the premiere rig the theater with dynamite and incinerate its inhabitants with one massive explosion.
WHO’S IN IT?
Always known for his unconventional approach to casting Inglourious Basterds director Quentin Tarantino assembled a characteristically eclectic group of actors for his latest effort mixing veterans with newcomers Americans with Europeans and superstars with virtual unknowns. Sporting a ridiculous mustache and an even more ridiculous Southern accent Brad Pitt leads the pack in the role of Aldo Raine while horror director Eli Roth (Hostel I and II) makes his acting debut as Raine’s sadistic right-hand man Sgt. Donny Donowitz. Other notable Basterds include B.J. Novak (The Office) Samm Levine (Freaks and Geeks) Paul Rust (I Love You Beth Cooper) and Omar Doom (Grindhouse).
It’s the cast’s European players who really distinguish Inglourious Basterds. German-born National Treasure star Diane Kruger makes the perfect 1940s matinee idol as the turncoat von Hammersmark while Irish-bred Michael Fassbender (Jonah Hex) oozes with old-school English haughtiness as her charming British co-conspirator Lt. Archie Hicox. Making an impressive English-language debut in Basterds as the quietly seething Shosanna is the luminous French star Melanie Laurent.
Rising above all of them with a truly Oscar-worthy performance is Austrian actor Christoph Waltz. Waltz is a revelation (to American audiences at least) as Col. Hans Landa the highly eccentric and brutally efficient leader of Nazi security efforts in France. Alternately hilarious and terrifying Waltz’s Landa is easily the most compelling big-screen villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Lest we forget Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his performance. (Waltz for his part already snagged the best-actor prize at Cannes earlier this year.)
Nobody executes dramatic shifts in tone more effectively and powerfully than Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds transitions breathlessly between moments of high tension and high comedy brutal carnage and lighthearted whimsy — all of which are peppered with the director’s distinctive dialogue and trademark wit. The film is easily his best work since 1994's Pulp Fiction.
At over two-and-a-half hours there are moments when the pacing of Inglourious Basterds seriously drags. Tarantino is above all else an actor’s director and there are times that he becomes so enamored with a performance that he’ll allow a scene to extend well beyond the point that its resolution has become a foregone conclusion. How such an obviously ADD-addled guy like Tarantino can exhibit such disdain for brevity is beyond my comprehension.
WHERE ARE THE BASTERDS?
Contrary to the film’s ad campaign the Basterds are actually minor players in the storyline. Only Pitt and Roth are given a substantial amount of dialogue; Novak and the others have only a line or two — if they speak at all.
I won’t give anything away but suffice it to say that Inglourious Basterds’ storyline features a decidedly revisionist take on the events of World War II. Obviously historical accuracy wasn’t a priority for Tarantino — and it probably shouldn’t be for the viewer either.
Looking like it was ripped from the headlines The International focuses on the corrupt dealings of a fictional bank that will go to any means possible to serve as a conduit for illegal weapons sales to people who shouldn’t be getting them. Enter an Interpol agent (Clive Owen) who is teamed with a New York assistant District Attorney (Naomi Watts) to go after a network of suave crafty Europeans bent on carrying out their dirty business as they always have. Following their trail around the world in such locales as Berlin Italy New York and Istanbul the two become targets in an unending high stakes game of murder and intrigue.
Looking more unkempt and unshaven than ever Owen totally connects with the role of an eccentric agent who stumbles on to a worldwide conspiracy which eventually leads to a group of corrupt bankers. Who knew? It makes you realize what an ideal James Bond he would have been. Unfortunately Watts just isn’t his match. She comes across as bland and lost never able to get a beat on this lawyer who is caught up in an international scandal. Forced to utter obvious lines like “This isn’t over” at the 80-minute mark she has zero chemistry opposite Owen. German director Tom Tywker who broke out with the riveting and stylish Run Lola Run 10 years ago has his best outing since that film carefully navigating the numerous and colorful locations with just enough pacing and attention to detail to keep this from turning into yet another Bourne ripoff. He seems totally in control of the complicated and dense storyline pulling off a sensational set piece at New York’s Guggenheim Museum (actually meticulously re-created in a Berlin warehouse) where Owen gets involved in a shootout to end all shootouts with numerous bad guys. It’s a stunning scene running about 15 minutes -- and a textbook example of how to shoot an action sequence. It’s reminiscent of some of the best cold war spy thrillers of the ‘60s and ‘70s and that’s a high compliment. See it.
We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.