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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The trailers for Hope Springs might lead you to believe it's a romantic comedy about a couple trying to jumpstart their sexless marriage but it causes more empathetic cringing than chuckles. Audiences will be drawn to Hope Springs by its stars Meryl Streep Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell and Streep's track record of pleasing summer movies like Julie & Julia and Mamma Mia! that offer a respite from the blockbusters flooding theaters. Despite what its marketing might have you believe Hope Springs isn't a rom-com. The film is a disarming mixture of deeply intimate confessions by a married couple in the sanctuary of a therapist's office awkwardly honest attempts by that couple to physically reconnect and incredibly sappy scenes underscored by intrusive music. Boldly addressing female desire especially in older women it's hard not to give the movie extra credit for what writer Vanessa Taylor's script is trying to convey and its rarity in mainstream film. The ebb and flow of intimacy and desire in a long-term relationship is what drives Hope Springs and while there are plenty contrived moments and unresolved issues it is frankly surprising and surprisingly frank. It's a summer release from a major studio with high caliber stars aimed squarely at the generally underserved 50+ audience addressing the even more taboo topic of that audience's sex life.
Streep plays Kay a suburban wife who's deeply unsatisfied emotionally and sexually by her marriage to Arnold. Arnold who is played by Tommy Lee Jones as his craggiest sleeps in a separate bedroom now that their kids have left the nest; he's like a stone cold robot emotionally and physically and Kay tiptoes around trying to make him happy even as he ignores her every gesture. One of the most striking scenes in the movie is at the very beginning when Kay primps and fusses over her modest sleepwear in the hopes of seducing her husband. Streep makes it obvious that this isn't an easy thing for Kay; it takes all her guts to try and wordlessly suggest sex to her husband and when she's shot down it hurts to watch. This isn't a one time disconnect between their libidos; this is an ongoing problem that leaves Kay feeling insecure and undesirable.
After a foray into the self-help section of her bookstore Kay finds a therapist who holds week-long intensive couples' therapy sessions in Good Hope Springs ME and in a seemingly unprecedented moment of decisiveness she books a trip for the couple. Arnold of course is having none of it but he eventually comes along for the ride. That doesn't mean he's up for answering any of Dr. Feld's questions though. To be fair Dr. Feld (Carell) is asking the couple deeply intimate questions so if Arnold is comfortable foisting his amorous wife off with the excuse he had pork for lunch it's not so far-fetched to believe he'd be angry when Feld asks him about his fantasy life or masturbation habits.
Although Arnold gets a pass on some of his issues Kay is forthright about why and how she's dissatisfied. When Dr. Feld asks her if she masturbates she says she doesn't because it makes her too sad. Kay offers similar revelations; she's willing to bare it all to revive her marriage while Arnold thinks the fact that they're married at all means they must be happy. Carell's Dr. Feld is soothing and kind (even a bit bland) but it's always a pleasure to see him play it straight.
It's subversive for a mega-watt star to play a character that talks about how sexually unsatisfied she is and how unsexy she feels with the man she loves most in the world. The added taboo of Kay and Arnold's age adds that much more to the conversation. Kay and Arnold's attempts at intimacy are emotionally raw and hard to watch. Even when things get funny they're mostly awkward funny not ha-ha funny.
The rest of the movie is a little uneven wrapped up tightly and happily by the end. Their time spent soul-searching alone is a little cheesy especially when Kay ends up in a local bar where she gets a little dizzy on white wine while dishing about her problems to the bartender (Elisabeth Shue). Somewhere along the line what probably started out as a character study ended up as a wobbly drama that pushes some boundaries but eventually lets everyone off the emotional hook in favor of a smoothed-over happy ending. Still its disarming moments and performances almost balance it out. Although its target audience might be dismayed to find it's not as light-hearted as it would seem Hope Springs offers up the opportunity for discussion about sexuality and aging at a time when books and films like 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike are perking up similar conversations. In the end that's a good thing.
The news of Nora Ephron's illness and passing--she of the iconic filmmaker, director, producer, screenwriter, novelist, playwright, journalist, author, do-it-aller disposition--has been a hard one to handle. It all happened so fast. Ephron was a hero for many people in and out of the industry--bringing her hilarious, human stories with relatable dialogue to life and audiences all over the world. Celebrities--hearing the details in real time with the rest of us--were shocked and saddened by the news, and reacted accordingly via Twitter. We've collected some of the reactions to the sad news, and the loss of leader in the entertainment industry whose presence will be surely missed:
Salman Rushdie, Novelist
My thoughts are with Nora Ephron tonight.— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) June 26, 2012
Julie Klausner, Comedian
Say a prayer for Nora Ephron. Say two.— Julie Klausner (@julieklausner) June 26, 2012
Michelle Branch, Musician
R.I.P. Nora Ephron :*( I was always hoping I'd get a chance to meet her. Loved her writing.— Michelle Branch (@michellebranch) June 27, 2012
Adam McKay, Director/Screenwriter/Actor
Prayers for Nora Ephron. Love that lady.— Adam McKay (@GhostPanther) June 26, 2012
Melissa Joan Hart, Actress
Sending lots of prayers for healing to Nora Ephron!!— Melissa Joan Hart (@MellyJHart) June 26, 2012
Mia Farrow, Actress
Thoughts with Nora Ephron— mia farrow (@MiaFarrow) June 26, 2012
Michelle Collins, Comedian
Pretty sure we need to get #babyfishmouth trending in honor of the brilliant Nora Ephron.— Michelle Collins (@michcoll) June 26, 2012
Nia Vardalos, Actress & Screenwriter
Will do, and me too. RT @GhostPanther Prayers for Nora Ephron. Love that lady.— Nia Vardalos (@NiaVardalos) June 26, 2012
Nina Garcia, Project Runway Judge
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”RIP Nora Ephron— Nina Garcia (@ninagarcia) June 27, 2012
Cheyenne Jackson, Actor
RIP Nora Ephron.So sad.She brought such humor and empowerment to so many.— Cheyenne Jackson (@cheyennejackson) June 27, 2012
Andy Cohen, Host of Bravo's Watch What Happens Live
What a body of work Nora Ephron leaves us all. Gone too soon she had more to say....— Andy Cohen (@BravoAndy) June 27, 2012
Debra Messing, Actor
Nora Ephron---what a loss.A magnificent Spirit, and Voice.She changed Romantic Comedy forever.My prayers to her family and friends...— Debra Messing (@DebraMessing) June 27, 2012
Albert Brooks, Actor
R.I.P Nora Ephron. A witty, charming, lovely person.— Albert Brooks (@AlbertBrooks) June 27, 2012
Kerry Washington, Actress
My heart aches. Nora Ephron. What a tremendous loss. RIP.— kerry washington (@kerrywashington) June 27, 2012
Russell Simmons, Music Mogul
RIP Nora Ephron... bit.ly/Mo68xd— Russell Simmons (@UncleRUSH) June 27, 2012
Colin Hanks, Actor
Nora Ephron was devastatingly funny, extremely witty, and was ALWAYS one of the kindest people I have ever met.— Colin Hanks (@Colin_Hanks) June 27, 2012
Anee Rice, Author
A much beloved American author has died.This was Nora Ephron.I am so sorry to hear this.The news is just... fb.me/13b2SyTJO— Anne Rice (@AnneRiceAuthor) June 27, 2012
Beth Behrs, Actress
so incredibly sad to hear about Nora Ephron. she wrote/directed some of my most favorite romantic comedies :(.— Beth Behrs (@BethBehrs) June 27, 2012
Kaley Cuoco, Actress
RIP Nora EphronLoved her workLoved her directionLoved her writingBlessings and thoughts to her family— Kaley Cuoco (@KaleyCuoco) June 27, 2012
Kirstie Alley, Actress
“you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.”? Nora EphronOh Jeez... you will be missed..RIP XO— Kirstie Alley (@kirstiealley) June 27, 2012
Our thoughts are with Ephron's family at this time.
[Image Credit: Getty]
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Nora Ephron, Writer and Director, Dies of Cancer