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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X Factor competes with American Idol in many not so subtle ways. It’s got the obvious: carbonated, sugary beverage sponsor, pop singers as judges, and Simon Cowell (who’d be a legitmate bragging point if the ratings were higher). But this week, they pulled out the big gun: bring on a famous person’s daughter.
You may remember that during January’s American Idol auditions, we were introduced to a young woman named Jane. She had a decent voice and her father just happened to be Jim (freaking) Carey. No big deal. She went on a talent search in an effort to win success on her own, without using her father’s connections to attain her goals. It was admirable, the problem was that she wasn’t nearly as good of a singer as her competitors were. Still, Idol did a little dance around her for the time she spent on the show throughout the audition rounds.
Now, enter the final week of the X Factor auditions, in which they play with time like a rubber band and hop back to San Francisco auditions, where we started in episode one, to meet a young woman named Sophie Tweed-Simmons. She introduces herself as a student and shows up in a black SUV with a chauffeur, forcing we, the students of reality TV, to assume she’s going to be nothing more than a rich brat. It turns out she’s the daughter of Gene Simmons and Shannon Tweed. Just like Jim Carey’s daughter before her, she wants to do this on her own. (Strange then, that she brought her famous father with her. But we’ll move on from there.)
Now, so far, X Factor and Idol are almost on par in the “Children of a Celebrity” category, except that all we got on Idol was a phone call from Mr. Carey. Here, we get the actual Gene Simmons. Plus - and oh, is there a plus - we get a one-sided rivalry concocted with the help of good editing and one young woman’s serious attitude problem.
Meet Tara Simon, a 27-year-old vocal coach and chronic woo-woo-er who should know better. But she doesn’t and she spends the entirety of her on-deck time making fun of sweet Sophie for getting by on her dad’s fame. Yes, Tara. That’s clearly why she even bothered to come to a cattle call in a San Francisco parking lot full of crazy people. Because she’s a privileged brat who's succeeding on her father’s music industry connections. Music execs always send you to a reality show before they really consider you. Oh wait, no they don’t, because that’s insane.
The producers, however, are keen to promote this insane “rivalry” and put both girls’ auditions back-to-back. Demi recognizes Sophie because she knows Nick Simmons, and just like that, the judges all realize who Sophie is and her face drops like she just found out sunshine was discontinued. Besides the fact that she didn’t know “Make You Feel My Love” was actually by Bob Dylan and not Adele, her rendition of the song was sweet and sultry, though it did lack that extra punch you seek in a famous singer. Still, they’ve fawned all over lesser singers on this show and she’s a joy to watch. When voting time comes, L.A. is unconvinced and delivers the first judges’ spilt of the night. He says no. However, the others aren’t quite as hard on her and send her on through on the basis that she needs work, but she’s got the goods.
Take that, singing Regina George! Right? Right?! Wrong. Just when you think they’ve pulled the usual reality show schtick and played up the sweet girl who’s actually pretty terrific while the mean girl is sure to be full of herself and awful (hello, episode one of this season), that’s not the case.
Just before she takes the stage, Tara talks even more crap and waltzes onto the stage calling herself the Simon Cowell of her vocal studio, waving her arms claiming she’s the next Christina Aguilera (whoa, dream big) and chirping that she’s primed to take over one of the ladies’ judging seats. Thankfully, Simon tells her to shut up and sing, just in time for her to not be the worst singer ever.
And this is when we have a dilemma. Hey, X Factor, you just set us up to hate this girl. She’s the worst kind of human, according to everything you’ve showed us. She’s mean, spiteful, proud. She’s cheesy and yells like she’s a caricature of a country star. There’s no way she’ll be good. And then, she’s still over-the-top, but she too has the raw goods. She’s simply the victim of over-training. She gets four “yeses.” Damnit. You know what this means, don’t you? This rivalry is going to be milked for at least a few boot camp episodes. At least Simon knows that she’s an “utter drama queen.”
Next: All aboard the insanity train!The rest of the episode was colored with even more absurdity: splicing in newscasters like Superman is about to swoop down and save a group of young ladies in mortal danger, staged Demi-love, Simon on a scooter, and Britney’s “prank” on the judges’ assistant which consisted of simply asking the poor kid to do annoying useless tasks. Oh no! Don’t make him go out looking for a stupid hat! That’s definitely not demeaning and probably not any different from anything else you usually ask for. Later, when we find out the thrilling conclusion of this saga, our reward is Simon in a tiara and an unrelenting sense that Britney might own the best leather jacket ever. Seriously, I want it. Where can I get it?
Finally, we were treated to a string of folks with potential, some of whom are reminiscent of other famous singers, and another set of folks who are so bad, we're left with no choice other than cursing the producers for including them in this two-hour engagement.
First up, Adonis, the bandana-ed wonder and his “uh-ing” friend Jon. Yes, all Jon can do onstage is say “uh.” Riveting stuff. They attempt “Hello” by Lionel Richie, and by attempt, I mean the wildly inaccurately and probably self-named Adonis wailed onstage while his friend provided the appropriate amount of grunting support while Britney cackled and screamed “Oh, gawd.” And if that and the audience’s ubiquitous booing wasn’t enough, we actually had to watch the whole panel tell them no.
After a string of tragedies including a girl with a tragic case of oversized coat with short shorts and no singing ability, a guy who confused himself with a Backstreet Boy turned russian dancer, a girl so boring she put us to sleep with a single note, a slutty Charlie Chaplin, and a steampunk sad sack who cried his way off the stage, we were greeted with a refreshing sight: a human being.
Fifteen-year-old Dinah Jane, made me feel old by admitting she used to sing “Oops I Did It Again” at age four. When the soundtrack switched gears to Selena Gomez’ “Who Says” it was obvious she is going to be good. And then she lathered it on with a story about her 20-person family living in a four-bedroom house. Luckily, her talent delivers on this classic reality show promise. She sings “If I Were a Boy” and she’s a little over dramatic, but she’s got the aura and the raw goods: a very full, mature tone. She just needs to learn a little more control, and the judges are willing to give her that chance.
Next up is Aaron Ray, a 16-year-old Ohio-native who was cut from group rounds last year. He’s adorable and grounded and of course Demi thinks he’s cute. Underage alert! He sings an original song, but it’s clear he’s been listening to a lot of Chris Brown. He’s a little shaky, but he’s got Demi and Britney giggling like teen girls while the actual teen girls squeal in the audience. Demi looks like she’s going to take a bite right out of him. Mission accomplished: yeses all around.
A series of good singers including Little Suzy country singer, the charming and cute 16-year-old Nick Perelli (he does have one hell of an ugly-cry though), the living personification of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, and a rap duo comprised of a man with a stuffed animal on his arm and a Milli Vanilli zombie build us up.
And then it all falls down. We meet Changyi Li, age 52 with a serious aging complex. She’s dressed like Shirley Temple sailor and says she wants to be like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and Britney right before she absolutely butchers “My Heart Will Go On.” And while I could regale you with the tales of the judges’ reactions, I’m drawing the line. This practice should have died with Idol circa 2005. This is just cruel, producers, and I won’t participate. The poor woman is sent home after witnessing an entire stadium laughing in her face.
When we skip over to Greensboro, North Carolina, we’re greeted with Draco Malfoy, faux hawk edition. Austin Carini has girls walking up to him like he’s Justin Bieber. The producers clearly put these fame-mongering little girls up to their task to ask this pimply kid for his autograph. He’s not even on TV yet and he’s just some dopey kid. Of course, when he gets on stage, it’s clear he’s been studying his idols: Bieber and One Direction. He’s an alright singer and he gets the girls going. All you need to be a teen hearthrob is fake charm and a decent voice. Oh and a cute face. Maybe some stupid hair. L.A. points out that his schtick isn’t all that special, but they still send him through on hope. That’s all we need, another kid who hopes he can be the next Bieber. There aren’t enough squealing teenagers at concerts across the country.
Next: Meet Donnie and Marie go to Wet Seal.And then, we’re disgusted more than we thought possible. Jaime, a pop duo made up of a boyfriend and girlfriend with magnetic lips take the stage. They’re basically like Donnie and Marie go to Wet Seal. ”We wake up and stare into eachothers eyes for 20 minutes” and “then we sing all day” - these are actual words they say to the cameras. When they kiss onstage, Britney has no qualms about casting some serious shade. And it only gets worse when they deliver their original song and dance inadvertently inspired by the work of S Club 7. In case you couldn’t guess, they were sent packing.
Finally, we got to end on a few high notes: David Corey and Daryl Black. First up is David, who’s basically a gruff Bruno Mars. And surprise of all surprises: he sings a Bruno Mars song. The good thing is that he actually does it pretty well, taking on the upper register challenges with ease. I’m not sure why his song made Britney break down, but his four yeses were certainly deserved.
Next, Daryl is married with two teenage kids and steps up to the plate with “Stereo Hearts” by Gym Class Heroes. He looks like some regular Joe, but presents a deconstructed version of the song that allows him to appear more hip while exercising his strength: true R&B flavor. He’s so good, Britney gives him her happy, squinty pixie face and Simon compares him to Nat King Cole. Now look, Nat King Cole was a velvet-voiced god among men, so let’s not be hasty, Simon. Daryl is good. Let’s wait until he start singing on the real stage with a little training before we start throwing around ego-boosters we can’t take back.
But, we can’t end with a pleasant, good singer. Nay. This is reality television. The penultimate auditions episode drops us with 13-year-old Trevor Moran, who has so much energy the atmosphere spontaneously bursts into a round of “Call me Maybe.” Then he gets sick and the paramedics have to come, and with zero shame, the show uses it as the sole teaser for tomorrow’s final episode of the auditions. Why’d you have to go and ruin everything, X Factor? Is it time for boot camp yet?
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Fox]
'X Factor' Recap: Seeking Fire and Rain
'X Factor' Recap: Trouble, Trouble, Trouble
'X Factor' Premiere Part 2: You Can't Be Pretty and Talented
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
For real estate broker Peter Klaven the bride wasn’t hard to land; it’s finding a best man that’s proving the real challenge. After he gets engaged to sweet Zooey he realizes he has no close male friendships so he sets off on a series of “man dates” to rectify the situation until he finally stumbles upon Sydney Fife a care-free bachelor and Peter’s polar opposite. An immediate best-buddy connection is formed as the two bond to Rush music and engage in honest mano et mano conversation. But when the bromance gets a little too intense it causes ripples in his relationship with Zooey and threatens the wedding.
WHO’S IN IT?
With a cast who mainly cut their teeth in TV sitcoms and improv this is can’t-miss comedy providing the best role Paul Rudd has had to date. Playing Peter as the ultimate female-loving straight guy a potential bride’s dream because he likes to cuddle up on the couch and watch chick flicks like Chocolat Rudd is hilarious especially later on as he tries the male-bonding thing with Sydney -- using hip phrases and non-sequiturs he is incapable of uttering with any level of competence. There’s a grounded sweetness to Rudd in this role and he never loses sight of the character. Rudd and Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) are sensationally funny together -- the best movie buddy team in years. That’s largely because Segel also is down-to-earth in a role that could have soared over the top but never does. The two are always believable and that’s key to making the comedy work as well as it does. Rashida Jones is refreshingly likeable and sweetly understanding if frustrated as Peter’s fiancée. As her BFFs are: Jaime Pressly (My Name Is Earl) who is always battling with her hubby (a riotous Jon Favreau) and Sarah Burns as the awkwardly man-hungry Hailey are highly amusing. SNL’s Andy Samberg is surprisingly understated as Peter’s gay brother and there are nice moments from J.K Simmons (Juno) and Jane Curtin as their parents. And watch out for Thomas Lennon who steals his few scenes as Doug a spurned early “man date” of Peter’s. The original Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno also turns up as himself in a wryly amusing running gag.
This is a broad comic premise but it’s never allowed to careen out of control allowing everyone to create three-dimensional human beings despite the hijinks going on around them. The bits with Rudd and Segel jamming on Rush songs are great and so is the endless stream of corny catchphrases such as Rudd’s "we’re just chillaxin’" and Segel’s "Dude Von Dudenstein."
Considering the smart instinctual comic chops that writer/director John Hamburg (Along Came Polly) displays here he could have cut back on the raunch which gets piled on a little thick at times for the film’s own good; although compared to last week’s dreadful buddy bomb Miss March this is Disney stuff.
There are too many to name but the Chinese restaurant engagement dinner is a comic knockout particularly when it comes to Segel’s toast -- full of thinly disguised and totally inappropriate sexual innuendo.