Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Monuments Men - Soldiers of Considerably Less Sorrow

The Monuments Men is one of those movies I had to take a bit of time to sort out my thoughts on. If nothing else, the one definite thing I will give this movie is that it's a great example of how release context can impact how a movie is received. I say this remembering how trailers had initially lined this movie up for a release initially during the holiday season - AKA, the prime awards time. This, in turn, had lead to some mixed impressions of the movie as being something of an Oscar bait movie- which admittedly, I could see the case for: a director with some good stand in the Academy, a strong cast, and World War II, which, horrible as it is to say, is kind of catnip for the Academy. Still, the concept was interesting enough that I was game to give it a chance regardless. Then, as things grew closer, the movie saw a shift in its release, being moved from a prime spot in the holiday season to the post-Awards hangover of January/February: a time of year somewhat notorious for being where studios dump their shelfwarmers they were ashamed to bring out before. This lead people to wonder, and grow a bit concerned.

This was partially explained when the movie opened to decidedly mixed reviews - not awful, but nothing particularly glowing.

To bring this point around, I honestly feel like the decision to withhold this movie till January/February was a smart move from a distribution standpoint. On having seen the movie, I was struck by the fact that, had I seen it amid the peak of what's meant to be the studio's best and brightest, I'd feel inclined to come down a LOT harder on it. Seen amid the frozen wastes of the year's starting line, I find myself considerably more lenient towards it.

Of course, that still doesn't completely tip the scales one way or the other, so let's get going, shall we?

The story is based in part on an actual operation during World War II- seeking to preserve much of the art and architecture of the countries in which the war was being waged. To guard from Hitler's cultural cleanse and the general destructive nature of combat, the US army assembled a special team of architects, artists and historians to go over and act as consultants in what buildings to avoid blowing up and to try and track down the art the Nazis confiscated. In the true style of old Hollywood, director George Clooney (who also appears as team member Frank Stokes) assembles an all-star cast to undertake this mission, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean DuJardin, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban.

"...OK, John. You caught me. I lied about this being a Coen Brothers reunion.
But you've gotta admit, that WOULD be pretty cool."

You can kind of see where the concerns of awards-bait might have come from at first.

This is the part where I feel a bit bad for the "but..." factor on this movie. I mean, the movie has a pretty fascinating premise, Clooney's certainly a solid director, and he's put together a great cast here. The problem is, the overall movie isn't the sum of its parts. Despite its interesting jumping off point, the movie suffers from a problem with staying focused. For as much as the title suggests the protection of old buildings, paired with the fact Bill Murray's character is chosen because he's an architect, the actual protection of buildings is almost an afterthought in this movie. Instead, the film concerns itself more with the art side of the mission, with two particular items as the objects sought out: Michaelangelo's Madonna and an altarpiece that maintains the closest thing to a continuous thread in the movie. Of course, that focus is, as the last part suggests, still somewhat tenuous. Despite the all-star cast put together for this team, they actually spend the bulk of the movie split up into teams investigating several leads across Europe. This then splits the movie into several mini-stories of varying quality (much as I enjoyed seeing Murray and Balaban play off of each other, their story is largely inconsequential but for one somewhat amusing moment where they get a lead entirely by chance.) Even what's supposed to be one of the main plotlines, involving Damon's character and a French collaborator played by an interesting but ultimately wasted Cate Blanchett, doesn't really add a whole lot to things. I was actually REALLY surprised this one didn't pan out to much, since it has a lot of potential - and to their credit, Damon and Blanchett have some interesting chemistry at first when he's still trying to convince her that America isn't planning to just steal the art back for their own collections. Like so many of the other stories in this, it's a lot of time spent for a minor clue that feels like it probably could have been tightened up or done away with - in this particular case, there's a pseudo-romance scene between the two that feels like it was never really earned, or that the film isn't even particularly invested in it. It's frustrating that there's some threads of a solid movie in here, but so much of it gets buried in a lot of fluff. The fluff isn't necessarily bad, but it's also somewhat disappointing.

It almost looks like something from a 50's sitcom.
...until you remember that they're looking at Nazi confiscation documents.

In the director's chair, Clooney's always been one for harkening back to the older style of Hollywood, and it has served him well before. In this case, however, that old time sensibility feels a bit out of place for the subject matter. Trying to do an old-style of World War II movie in a post-Saving Private Ryan age is a REALLY tricky act to pull without making your view of war seem idealistic or sanitized. George tries here, and I will give him that, but it really doesn't work too well for him on this outing. Even the moments that are supposed to strike an emotional chord with us - such as when the team loses a comrade, or when we see the Nazis torching artwork to keep it from falling into enemy hands often feel somewhat arbitrary in spite of themselves. A similar problem occurs with regards to maintaining an air of suspense in this movie: alongside the Nazis, one of the big looming threats this movie's trying to push is the invading Soviet army - where the Nazis seek to burn the art, the Soviets want to plunder it. It's not a bad idea narrative-wise, but the fact is, as far as the movie's concerned, it becomes more a matter of tell than show, and the most the Soviets do is drive up, look intimidating, and move on, lather, rinse, repeat. Even the Nazis themselves are, with two exceptions, almost a non-threat to this movie.

On top of all this, and most damning, is the fact that the movie's message is also infected by this lack of agency. The entire reason for the Monuments Men as a team is a good one - and the idea that art is an extension of a culture's voice and history is a great idea to explore, but this film never really touches on it that much, save for a speech by Clooney that pays the idea a bit of lip service. Otherwise, the movie's big concern is just 'get it before the Nazis do' and any greater statement is left for a later that never comes.

Probably the biggest surprise of this movie for me is the realization that Bob Balaban is actually surprisingly tiny.
...that's not just riffing on this picture. I mean in general, I had never really noticed just how short he is.
Bringing things back to the earlier point of the merits in holding this movie off, I do admit - had I seen this during the peak season, I'd probably be judging this one much harsher than I am now. Right now, its release during a lackluster time of year release-wise makes its failings less damning and more disappointing.

Of course, even outside of this time of year, disappointment is probably the best word for this movie. It was made with some very good components - a very promising story, a director with a solid track record, and a great cast. Unfortunately, at the center of it is a script that overextends itself without having enough cohesion to justify all those threads being thrown out. Rather than feeling like a full movie, it feels like it's flipping between vignettes from multiple other movies that sort of all blend together in the last act. Clooney makes the most of the script, but even his direction isn't at its best on this one either. It's the kind of movie I almost feel bad coming down on, since it had a lot of potential to be good, but it's weak enough in a critical area to really stop me from being able to say it works.

About the best I can do for it - to crib from another, better, WWII-related movie - is to drop the figurative hat on George's head and remind him: "you lost today, kid. That doesn't mean you have to like it."

(...yeah, I know. He's older than me. Humor me, the quote feels odd if I adjust it for proper ages.)

Anyway, going to be trying to weigh in on the Oscars for this year, though I admit, I'm still doing some extra research for that, so mileage will vary.

Till then, you've been warned!

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