NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021) – Visually Intriguing Remake Is Mostly for Guillermo del Toro Fans

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Well, I continue not to be a fan of director Guillermo del Toro.

And I say this with a great deal of respect, because visually, del Toro’s films are genuinely impressive. Trouble is, I just don’t like many of them, mostly because where he excels with the visual aspects of film, he struggles with the storytelling.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021), del Toro’s latest, released in cinemas back in December and now available on HBO Max, falls into this same category. Visually, the movie is a real treat. The story which takes place in the late 1930s and early 1940s, with the first half set inside a travelling carnival, is beautifully shot, and the imagery is mesmerizing. The mix of vibrant and shadowy colors, the use of snow, blood, and carnival lights all add up to inspired cinematography. Del Toro’s imagery here is reminiscent of the works of Tim Burton.

But the story is far less inspired and ultimately fall short.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a remake of the classic NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) which starred Tyrone Power. It tells the story of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who when the film opens is seen burning a corpse and an entire house with it, and he then leaves in silence and eventually finds work at a carnival. He befriends Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn) who once had a very successful mentalist act, during Pete’s younger days. Stanton learns the tricks of the trade and finds that he has a real talent for the mentalist act. He runs off with the young and lovely Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) to start a life of their own, where they take their mentalist act on the road and begin to do exceedingly well.

Until they cross paths with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who puts them in touch with some powerful clients who are looking for individual help as they try to contact their dead loved ones. This is a line Stanton has been taught not to cross, that once someone wants deep personal help, it’s best to let them know it’s all an act, so they don’t get hurt, but the money these people will pay him is too much for him to ignore, and so he embarks on the dangerous path of conning some very powerful people into believing that he is indeed communicating with their deceased relatives.

In addition to its fabulous visuals, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is also blessed with an exceptional cast. Bradley Cooper is excellent as he always is, and he’s in nearly every frame of this movie. He takes Stanton Carlisle from mysterious stranger to eager carnival hand, to a successful mentalist at the top of his game to finally when he takes things too far, to a tragic figure, and he is convincing in all of these stages. While not as impressive as his work in A STAR IS BORN (2018) or AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) it’s still pretty good stuff and a solid reminder of how far Cooper has come from his days in THE HANGOVER movies, a comedy trilogy in which he was also excellent.

Rooney Mara is sincere as Molly Cahill, and is the one constant positive force in Stanton’s life, while Cate Blanchett makes Dr. Lilith Ritter a shady film noir femme fatale. Blanchett is fine here, but I enjoyed her more as the powerful TV host in DON’T LOOK UP (2021).

The stellar cast also includes Willem Dafoe as carnival head Clem Hoatley, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, and Holt McCallany.

The screenplay by del Toro and Kim Morgan, based on the novel by Lindsay Gresham, works up to a point. I thoroughly enjoyed the set-up, the stranger with the mysterious background who joins the carnival to finally fit in somewhere, but as the plot progresses, and Stanton grows more confident and takes his act on the road to hit it big, the intrigue dies down, mostly because none of the characters are fleshed out enough to make their contributions to the story worthwhile. And Stanton becomes a one trick pony after a while. Plus, the film is very, very long, clocking in at two hours and thirty minutes, and it feels like it. Shave off thirty minutes, and the movie probably works better.

As I said, visually the film is outstanding, and so del Toro fares better as a director here. There are some brilliantly conceived almost mesmerizing scenes, featuring merry go rounds, ferris wheels, and buildings with cold, labrynth-like hallways. There’s also plenty of blood and violence. And with its talented cast it has the makings of a winner, but sometimes these elements are not enough, and that’s the case here with NIGHTMARE ALLEY. The story falls flat long before the end credits roll.

I feel the same way even about some of del Toro’s celebrated hits, films like the Oscar-winning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), CRIMSON PEAK (2015), and even PAN’S LABRYNTH (2006). All of these films have winning visual styles, and all labored to tell a decent story. My favorite of del Toro’s films remains his HELLBOY movies.

If you are a fan of Guillermo del Toro, you will no doubt enjoy NIGHTMARE ALLEY much more than I did. But the rest of us, while we may be wowed by its vibrant onscreen artistry, will find sitting through two hours and thirty minutes of labored storytelling an arduous task at best.

At the end of the day, NIGHTMARE ALLEY isn’t much of a nightmare. It’s not even much of a bad dream. It’s just an alley, a very long alley with lots of offshoots that ultimately lead to nowhere.

—END—

DON’T LOOK UP (2021) -Adam McKay’s On Point Satire Is One of the Best Movies of the Year

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If the human race survives long enough, and we’re able to look back years from now at DON’T LOOK UP (2021), the new movie by director/writer Adam McKay, a satire which asks the question what if an extinction-event asteroid were on a collision course with Earth, and nobody cared because they were told it wasn’t really happening, we might say, “What was that all about? I don’t get it.

And if not for the times we now live in, and the absurd shenanigans of the prior Trump administration, I wouldn’t get it either. I certainly wouldn’t believe it. But the events depicted in DON’T LOOK UP while supposedly meant to be satiric and funny are in reality terrifying because of what happened during the years of 2016-2020.

Some people have complained that DON’T LOOK UP isn’t as funny as it should be. I disagree. The humor is definitely there, but more importantly, so is the truth, and the truth is, as ridiculous as this movie plot sounds on paper, it’s not any more ludicrous than what has happened in real life. I found this story frightening.

And that’s why I loved this movie. It scared the sh*t out of me and made me laugh while doing it. I hope we survive long enough to be able to look back and laugh at this one, at these insane times. I imagine it’s how audiences felt after first viewing Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant satire DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), a film which poked fun at a possible nuclear holocaust.

In DON’T LOOK UP, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Ph.D. doctoral candidate assistant Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) make the shocking discovery of an asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth and that upon impact will destroy all life on the planet. Their findings are corroborated by NASA scientist Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). Because this is an obviously dire situation, they are granted an audience with the President, President Orlean (Meryl Streep), but their meeting doesn’t go as expected. They are met with doubts and skepticism and are told to sit tight and wait for the president to get her own people to check into the situation, even though they know with near absolute certainty that the cataclysmic event will indeed happen in six months.

Try as they might, Mindy, Dibiasky, and Oglethorpe just can’t get their message out, and eventually, when the asteroid does get close enough to become visible, the political lines become drawn, and the president’s party’s rallying becomes “don’t look up!” which people at her rallies continually chant, the argument being, the opposition party “just wants to scare you. You are free not to look up.” Sound familiar?

DON’T LOOK UP is sharp satire with a lot to say about where we are right now as a society, and Adam McKay is able to make his points successfully because he shakes things up just enough to prevent any obvious political lines being drawn. The fact-avoiding president is a woman, and so while many of the criticisms are aimed at the prior Trump administration, the president in this movie is not a white conservative male. Political parties are never named or mentioned. Even traditional conservative/liberal divisions aren’t identified. Streep’s President Orlean has a photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton on her desk, for example. What McKay aims for with DON’T LOOK UP is what happens when you play fast and loose with the truth, and he mostly hits his mark with a satire which doesn’t quit.

McKay has done this before, with films like THE BIG SHORT (2015) and VICE (2018), where he mixes humor with sharp hard-hitting points.

DON’T LOOK UP is full of so many on-point moments, from little ones like the news host on an unnamed news network who even as the asteroid is hitting the earth refuses to give the event any airtime, instead talking about “the big news event of the day, topless urgent care workers.” Again, years from now people might raise an eyebrow and wonder WTF? But you only have to watch news coverage today to see that the same things happens every day.

There are larger moments. DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy finally loses it near the end, and on a national news magazine TV show goes off on a “mad as hell” rant that is obviously reminiscent and inspired by the classic Peter Finch scene in NETWORK (1976). It’s no less upsetting.

The cast is spectacular.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays a role he doesn’t often play, a neurotic nervous type who can barely get a cognizant word out when first on the national stage. It was fun to watch DiCaprio play someone who wasn’t cooler than cool. It was also eye-opening to see him playing someone his own age or older, with adult sons. DiCaprio is a terrific actor, and I’ve been a fan for a long while. He nails this role, which comes as no surprise.

It was good to see Jennifer Lawrence back on screen again. While she’s a bit more subdued here than we’ve seen her in the past, her Kate Dibiasky is still a fiery character and fun to watch. Because she is outspoken, she gets considerable pushback from people in power and also from viewers at home, and she gets pummeled in real time on social media, which is another target of McKay’s satire. What he depicts happening on social media is absolutely insane. It’s also true. Dibiasky also has to endure her boyfriend breaking up with her on a social media platform.

Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, and she nails President Orlean, keeping her from being just a caricature. Cate Blanchett knocks it out of the park as TV news host Brie Evantee, who finds Dr. Mindy attractive and initiates an affair between them. She is so on point she makes her character almost nauseating to watch.

Jonah Hill, while once again playing a role that is within his comfort zone, nonetheless enjoys many fine moments as Orlean’s son Jason, who’s also Chief of Staff. His “prayer” near the end of the movie for “all the stuff we’re going to lose” is priceless.

Mark Rylance delivers the most inspired and disturbing performance in the film, as Peter Isherwell, one of the richest men on the planet who is also something of a feel-good digital age techno guru. It’s Isherwell who convinces President Orlean to ignore Mindy’s science and follow his own, which of course has not been verified by other world scientists.

Rob Morgan is solid as Dr. Oglethorpe, and Ron Perlman is hilarious as Benedict Drask, the foul-mouthed astronaut of “another generation” who is chosen to lead the mission to destroy the asteroid. The cast also includes Tyler Perry, Timothee Chalamet, and Ariana Grande.

Director McKay wrote the screenplay, based on a story by David Sirota. It’s a fabulous screenplay, as nearly everything about it works.

I loved DON’T LOOK UP, and while it’s showing up here late in the year, it just might be my favorite movie of the year. It’s a Netflix movie, and right now is showing both at theaters and on Netflix.

Check it out. This is one you definitely do not want to miss.

And unless you’ve had your head in the sand the past several years, you’ll get exactly what McKay is talking about. He’s giving us DON’T LOOK UP as both a frightening look at where we are and a wake-up call. The asteroid hurtling towards Earth is a perfect metaphor for any major problem we face in the world today and what happens when those in charge decide not to tell the people the truth but instead feed them lies.

DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy’s final few lines are chilling and come after he and his family are enjoying a last dinner together, reminiscing about their happy memories and what they’re thankful for. He says, in effect, we really had everything, didn’t we?

We too have everything. And that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

There’s an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. You can see it if you just look up. Or you can listen to those who tell you that looking up is a sign of weakness, that it’s politically motivated, and that you need to stand up for your rights and not look up, and that the threat isn’t as dire as others say.

But it is, and to see for yourself, all you have to do is look up.

Do you?

—END—

OCEAN’S 8 (2018) – Mildly Entertaining Heist Tale

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Oceans-8

Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of the OCEAN’S movies.

The Steven Soderbergh-directed trilogy did little for me in spite of its impressive cast, led by George Clooney. Of course, the first one, OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001) was a remake of the 1960 film, OCEAN’S 11 starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

With that in mind, I wasn’t all that excited to see OCEAN’S 8 (2018), the all- female take on the OCEAN’S formula, starring Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, younger sister to Clooney’s Danny Ocean, but I wanted to check it out anyway, mostly because of its cast.

For me, the Soderbergh OCEAN films always held such promise: they had fabulous casts and told fun lively tales about bold heists of Las Vegas casinos, but the trouble was, they just weren’t that fun and lively. The culprit? Scripts that just never brought the characters or the stories to life.

So, now comes OCEAN’S 8, where the heist features an all-woman team. Would the results be any different?

Sadly, no.

OCEAN’S 8 opens with Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) getting out of prison after convincing the parole board that all she wants to do is live a normal crime-free life. Once out of prison, this promise last all of two seconds as she immediately scams her way into purchasing items from a high-end boutique followed by a hotel room. And before you can say Rat Pack she’s already assembling her team for her big heist which she had been planning during her five-year prison stay.

Ocean’s team includes Lou (Cate Blanchett), Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), Tammy (Sarah Paulson), Amita (Mindy Kaling), Constance (Awkwafina), and Nine Ball (Rihanna). The job? To steal a diamond necklace, which they intend to do by manipulating the famous Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) into wearing it to New York City’s annual Met Gala where they plan an elaborate scheme to remove it from her neck and get it out of the building undetected.  It’s a job which would make her older brother Danny proud.

I had the same problem with OCEAN’S 8 that I had with the other OCEAN movies: love the cast and the plot, but the script not so much.

You can’t find too much fault with the cast here. They’re fun to watch, but none of the actors are enough on their own to carry this lackluster tale to higher places.

Sandra Bullock lacks the charm of George Clooney in the central role, and so you don’t have that same “bad boy does good” feeling going on here. It’s the type of thing that Cary Grant used to be able to pull off with ease- the thief who you actually really like.  Clooney could do the same.  Bullock here, interestingly enough, comes off as more of a villain than Clooney ever did.  Her take on the “family business” is far less playful than Clooney’s.

Cate Blanchett is okay as Lou, but it’s the supporting cast who actually make more of a mark. In particular, Rihanna as Nine Ball and Awkwafina as Constance both add considerable spunk and energy to their roles. Even though their roles aren’t any more developed than the others, I enjoyed watching these two whenever they were on-screen.

Likewise, Sarah Paulson was also very enjoyable as Tammy, as she, too delivers a spirited performance.

I thought Helena Bonham Carter gave the best performance in the movie as the manic and apprehensive Rose Weil. It’s nothing I haven’t seen Carter do before in her long and successful career, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t do it well.  I pretty much enjoyed her scenes in this one the most.

And Anne Hathaway does what she is supposed to do, as the wealthy celebrity Daphne Kluger, but it’s not really a role that moved me in any particular way, which doesn’t help the story, since she wasn’t someone I felt deserved to be an unwitting participant in a major jewel heist.

Which brings me to the weakest part of the film, the screenplay by Gary Ross and Olivia Milch.  The biggest knock against it is, like the earlier OCEAN films, it’s just not sharp enough with its humor or its story to make me care all that much. There’s nary a memorable line or scene to be found.  I’ve always found the OCEAN films to be only mildly entertaining, responsible for providing a minor diversion for a couple of hours, but hardly all that exciting or fun.  OCEAN’S 8 is the same.

And in terms of story, the heist has very little meaning. Anne Hathaway’s Daphne Kluger is no villain, and so there’s no feeling that she deserves to be robbed. Plus, since the jewels aren’t even hers, she’s not even the one being robbed. There’s also very little motivation for Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean, other than that crime seems to run in her family’s genes. There are hints, as in the first George Clooney OCEAN film, that the heist is personal, as Debbie uses the crime to get back at the man who put her in prison, but this plot point remains minor throughout the film.

In addition to writing the screenplay, Ross also directed OCEAN’S 8, and while the film looks good, in terms of pacing, things never really build to a satisfactory climax.  I thought the whole film just seemed off somehow.

Ross also wrote and directed the first HUNGER GAMES movie in 2012, and his work on that film was much stronger than his work here.

OCEAN’S 8 might entertain you, especially if you’re a fan of the previous OCEANS movies, as it’s pretty much the same exact formula, but if you’re not really into the George Clooney films, I can’t see how you’d enjoy this one any better.

Underneath all the glamour and glitter, OCEAN’S 8 is just a mediocre heist tale, a mild diversion, the type of film you might want to catch at home rather than at your local theater.

And while an OCEAN’S 9 may be inevitable, what should come first is an OCEAN’S 101 for the writers who write the screenplays for these movies.  Now that would have some value.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) – Colorful Superhero Adventure is the Best of the Thor Movies

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It’s no secret that I love the Marvel superhero movies.

And while I have enjoyed the THOR movies, I’ve preferred the IRON MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA films.  They’ve had more life, and I just haven’t been a fan of the THOR plots which have taken place in the doom and gloom of Asgard, Thor’s home world.

Until now.

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) sheds its seriousness within its first few seconds, and immediately becomes as playful and humorous as a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie.

A lot happens in THOR: RAGNAROK, so the less said about the plot the better.  The very evil Hela (Cate Blanchett), the first-born of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), which makes her Thor’s older sister, sets her sights on conquering Asgard in order to make it her own, and it’s up to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to stop her.  But this is a fight that Thor cannot win alone, and so he enlists the aid of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Heimdall (Idris Elba), his estranged oftentimes evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and even Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The result is an action-packed often hilarious adventure that entertains from start to finish.

The best part of THOR: RAGNAROK is its lively script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost.  Evidently, the writers were influenced and inspired by the John Carpenter action comedy BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), a flick that is not among my favorite Carpenter movies, as it’s downright silly at times, but that being said it’s still colorful and entertaining, and it stars Kurt Russell.

Now, I can easily see this influence.  In fact, even before I knew of this connection, while watching the movie, I felt that this THOR film was playing out as if it had been directed by John Carpenter.  And Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in this film reminded me of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton character in BIG TROUBLE, from the over-the-top dialogue like “because this is what heroes do,” to the moments where the bravado and boasts come back to hit our hero in the face.  In short, it’s fun to see Thor not take himself too seriously.

The dialogue is fun throughout, the situations exciting and comical, and the characters are all well-written and fleshed out.

Also, like most Marvel superhero movies, THOR: RAGNAROK boasts a cast that has no business being in a superhero movie.  The combination of superior acting and strong writing creates both lively characters and compelling situations.

Chris Hemsworth can pretty much play Thor in his sleep these days.  He owns the role. And while previous THOR films haven’t been among my favorite Marvel movies, it’s not because of Hemsworth.  He’s always been excellent as Thor.  And he’s just as good if not better here.  He dials things up a few notches on the humor meter, which isn’t completely surprising, since he’s always given Thor humorous moments. Not only is he funny here, but he’s completely believable as a hero strong enough to tangle with the Hulk.

Speaking of the Hulk, the giant green guy is the “guest Avenger” in this film, and Mark Ruffalo is back once again playing the character.  This time around we see more of the Hulk and much less of his alter ego, Bruce Banner. This is also the first time that Ruffalo is voicing the Hulk.  In previous movies, it’s been Hulk veteran Lou Ferrigno providing the voice.  Ruffalo does just fine, and I actually preferred his voice this time around.

As I said, Tom Hiddleston is back as Loki, Thor’s villainous brother who continually shows up in these Marvel movies like a bad penny.  Now, I’ve never been a fan of Loki in these movies, so it’s saying something about THOR: RAGNAROK that this is the first time I’ve really enjoyed Loki.  Hiddleston seems to be having a good time playing him, and we get to see Loki taking stock of his character, as he joins forces with his brother to take on his evil sister.  It’s fun to see Loki fight for the common good while still not shedding his darker side.

Cate Blanchett is icy cold as Hela.  She’s the first major female villain to appear in one of these Marvel superhero films, and that’s long overdue.  In general, the Marvel movies tend to stumble with their villains, who are usually the weak link in the stories.  Not so here. Blanchett’s Hela is a formidable foe for Thor and friends, and she’s both sexy and evil when she’s on screen.

Even better than Blanchett is Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie.  Her tough warrior heroine would give Wonder Woman a run for her money.  She was one of my favorite characters in the movie.

Jeff Goldblum chews up the scenery in a scene-stealing performance as the Grandmaster, and his arena of death is right out of a John Carpenter movie.  I half-expected to see Snake Plissken show up.

It was good to see Idris Elba get more significant screen time as Heimdall, and Karl Urban also provides solid support as Skurge, a character who finds himself drafted by Hela to be her local enforcer.

I could keep going, as there are still more solid supporting players here, including Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s father Odin, who’s more enjoyable here in his brief screen time than he was in the previous two movies, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s on hand briefly as Doctor Strange.

Director Taika Waititi has made a colorful, action-packed superhero tale which fits in perfectly with the Marvel universe.  It’s closer in tone to a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie than a THOR movie, but that’s okay.  From its opening scene where Thor battles a giant villain and things don’t go as planned, to Thor’s first meeting with the Hulk and their subsequent banter, it gets the humor right.

The action sequences also do not disappoint.  The battle in the Grandmaster’s arena is a good one, as is the climactic showdown with Hela.

For most of the movie Thor is without his hammer, and he sees this as a disadvantage, and he questions his strength without it, but his father Odin tells him otherwise, which provides Thor with a telling and powerful moment later in the film.

But other than this, there’s not a lot of seriousness here. THOR: RAGNAROK is all fun and games, and this is a good thing.  It’s the perfect Marvel vehicle.

It’s easily the best of the THOR movies.

—END—

 

THE MONUMENTS MEN Entertains in Spite of Muddled Message

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The-Monuments-Men- posterMovie Review:  THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

 

Was it worth risking the lives of men just for the sake of saving art?

 

That’s the question asked throughout THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014) the new World War II adventure written and directed by George Clooney, based on a true story, about a group of mostly middle-aged men enlisted by the army to reclaim the works of art stolen by Hitler and the Nazis, works of art that Hitler originally intended to place in a museum, until the waning days of the war when he ordered his men to destroy it all.  It’s up to the Monuments Men to save these works of art, but first, they have to find them.

 

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) seeks and receives permission from President Roosevelt to assemble a group of art experts to go into France and then Germany to recover the huge amounts of art stolen by the Nazis.  Since all the young art experts are already enlisted in the armed forces, Stokes is forced to assemble his team of art specialists, architects, and museum curators, from a pool of men beyond their fighting years.

 

The movie gets these introductions out of the way early, as we quickly meet James Granger (Matt Damon) who wasn’t able to enlist because of poor vision, Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), as well as their young translator, Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas).

 

Once in Europe, Stokes pairs the men and gives each duo a specific task, the goal being to locate the various places in which the Nazis hid the stolen art.  Campbell pairs with Savitz, an interesting twosome since they hate each other, and Garfield pairs with Jean Claude, while Granger is assigned the difficult task of getting to know a French woman Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) who worked for the resistance and who they believe has valuable information as to where the Nazis hid all the stolen art.  The trouble is, Claire trusts no one, and she suspects the Americans only want the art for themselves, and she tells Granger as much.

 

When the Nazis realize there is little hope of winning the war, Hitler orders his troops to destroy all the artwork as they pull out in retreat, which adds more pressure on the Monuments Men to locate the art as soon as possible.  It also places them in harm’s way as they need to be close to the action in order to get to the art before the Nazis soldiers destroy it.

 

Further complicating matters is that the Russians are also confiscating the art as they move in, only they’re taking it back to Russia, not returning it to its original owners.  It’s up to the Monuments Men to find these stolen treasures first so that they’re not lost to the western world.

 

THE MONUMENTS MEN is a very enjoyable movie filled with colorful characters and plenty of entertaining and humorous moments intertwined with some poignant ones, and even some suspense, but the trouble is its message that recovering the stolen art was worth risking the lives of these men doesn’t always ring true.

 

Clearly, writer/director George Clooney believes the sacrifice was worth it, but the movie doesn’t succeed in making this point.  For one thing, it tries too hard.  It asks the question “is it worth it?” so much it hammers you over the head with it. 

 

We see the Monuments Men engaged in various little adventures, which for the most part are all very entertaining, but compared to other soldiers— the soldiers at Normandy, for example— their sacrifice doesn’t feel the same.  The script by Clooney and Grant Heslov probably needed more time in the shop to get the message right. 

 

Don’t get me wrong.  The amount of art the Nazis stole was incredible, and had this been lost or destroyed, it would have been heartbreaking.  What the Monuments Men did was remarkable, but hitting the audience over the head with the notion that their mission was an amazing sacrifice somehow sounds hollow compared to what the rest of the soldiers were fighting for.

 

Another problem is Clooney’s Frank Stokes is a rather cold fish.  He’s not the best point man for selling an argument to an audience.  I almost wish the story had been told from the perspective of Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone character, who was a much more interesting and intriguing character than Clooney’s Frank Stokes.  Seen through her eyes, the Monuments Men would have been perceived as what they were, men doing the world a service, recovering people’s history and culture, but hearing Blanchett’s Simone say this, a woman whose brother was murdered by the Nazis, and who didn’t trust the Americans, it would have held more relevance than hearing it from Clooney’s stoic Stokes.

 

By far, the best part of THE MONUMENTS MEN is its talented cast, who really bring these guys to life.

 

George Clooney is just okay as Frank Stokes, but this is fine since he’s the level-headed one leading the team.  Matt Damon fares about the same as James Granger and is rather low-key throughout.  It’s the rest of the team that really shines.

 

It was great to see Bill Murray in this role as Richard Campbell, and he and Bob Balaban enjoy some fine moments together, some of the best in the film.  The scene where they’re surprised by a young Nazi soldier in the woods, and they end up sharing a cigarette is one of the best in the movie.  As is the scene when Murray hears a record sent to him by his family.  It’s a nice reminder that Bill Murray is much more than just a comic actor.

 

I also really enjoyed John Goodman and Jean Dujardin.  The scene where they’re fending off a sniper is a keeper.

 

But even better than all the Monuments Men is Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone.  She delivers the best performance in the film.  She also has one of the more emotional scenes in the film, when she’s told by her Nazi employer that her brother has been shot dead.  It’s a disturbing moment in a film that is strangely devoid of disturbing moments, a curious thing in a movie about Nazis.

 

The film would have benefitted from a visible Nazi villain.  Other than Simone’s boss who’s really not in the film all that much, there’s no one who makes your blood boil.  The villains are random soldiers with rifles.

 

In terms of entertainment, THE MONUMENTS MEN scores high.  I really enjoyed watching these guys and their efforts to recover the multitude of stolen art items.  Where it struggles is in its message that these men were putting their lives on the line for a cause equally as noble as the soldiers fighting to defeat genocide and world domination. 

 

That’s a difficult point to make.  Perhaps the movie didn’t need to try.

 

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