Movie Review: The Monuments Men

MonumentsMen Synopsis: At the tail end of World War II, art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney) is tasked with preserving and rescuing much of Europe's great art, sculptures, and buildings from the retreating Nazi forces. He assembles a crack team, known as "The Monuments Men", consisting of artists, architects, and playwrights and the group of aging men head overseas. Once stationed on the front lines, James Granger (Matt Damon) must persuade French historian Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to trust him and reveal her knowledge while the rest of the group spreads out across Europe in an attempt to locate the thousands of stolen pieces before the Nazis put them all to the flame.

What I Liked: It's hard not to get excited about a cast like this. Clooney and Damon are great in and of themselves but when you add in American Treasures John Goodman and Billy Murray and the criminally underrated Bob Balaban in supporting roles, you know you're bound to see some excellent work no matter how the finished product turns out. And that's what sticks about most about The Monuments Men. You get these bright moments of greatness from one of these performers or another and often the best sequences involve two of them working off of one another. Clooney and Damon have an obvious easy chemistry with each other, Murray and Balaban work delightfully in tandem for quite some time, and Goodman and Jean Dujardin make the most of their time together as well. (Very little of this film includes all of the Monuments Men which is a real bummer obviously.) I think it's fair to say that when The Monuments Men shines, it is because of the rich stock of talent that makes up the cast, though the story itself is interesting and worthy of being told.


What I Didn't Like: I think we're at the point where we have to say that George Clooney as a director can no longer be considered a draw. His first two films (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck which earned him an Oscar nomination) were of the highest quality but his subsequent efforts have fallen off significantly. Leatherheads is horrible and while The Ides of March had its moments (and even brought a nomination for writing), its pursuit of greatness was hamstrung almost from the beginning and the direction had a lot to do with that. Monuments Men is much the same. Great cast (as noted), interesting story, lots of good vibes going in but ultimately it doesn't come anywhere close to achieving its goals. I think all the right pieces are here but the assemblage of said pieces is wrong. The tone is uneven and usually seems slightly off, the first hour is incredibly choppy, and the movie routinely tries to cash in on emotional checks it hasn't yet earned. We're supposed to be invested in Stokes' attachment to a certain piece of art but the development of this plot point (and many others) fails to deliver the same amount of attachment that the character feels. There are numerous, "Oh that's nice" moments that are played for, "This will stick with you for the next 20 years." The score is horrendous and often drives the tone in just enough of the wrong direction that I had trouble staying attuned. And when The Monuments Men works, it seems almost always to be a result of the great talent of the cast and almost in spite of the poor direction.

In Conclusion: I'm not willing to call The Monuments Men a bad movie but it is a far, FAR cry from the classic film that I, and I think everyone involved with this movie too, expected it to be. To me, it's like a puzzle that has been twisted and turned into an assembled whole but the final picture is all wrong. The Monuments Men is passable and decently entertaining but that unfortunately makes it quite a disappointment.

Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for some language and violence)

Movie Review: Gravity

gravity-poster For those of you who know me or follow my work, you know that my recommending the 3D version of a film is a shocking departure from my normal stance. It is fair to say that I am vehemently opposed to the technology as a whole. But every so often a movie comes around that uses the technology not as a crutch or a gimmick but as an actual story-telling device that works with rather than apart from the rest of the film. To date, I have attached this exception to three films: Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi. Gravity now becomes the fourth member of that group while simultaneously setting itself so far apart from those films as to make me feel foolish for ever applauding their merits.

While on a final spacewalk to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, bio-medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), debris from a Russian satellite explosion rips through their orbit, destroying their space shuttle and leaving them stranded. With a limited oxygen supply and only a thruster pack with which to operate, Stone and Kowalski must make their way to the International Space Station before the debris comes through again and ruins any chance they might have at survival.

In an industry that is becoming increasingly dominated by home viewing options, it has become important (at least to me) to identify the films that need to be seen in a theater and those that can wait for your flat screen at home. A movie like The Way, Way Back which I love can be viewed and appreciated just as much at home as it can in a theater but some movies beg to be seen on the big screen. Gravity takes this a bit farther in that it demands to be seen on the biggest screen you can possibly find and in 3D no less. I’ll go so far as to say that if you wait until this film reaches DVD/Blu-Ray before you see it, you won’t even be seeing the same movie I partook in on Thursday night. It is THAT important that you get to Gravity as soon as possible.


Gravity’s plot could not be any simpler and yet writer-director-genius-visionary Alfonso Cuaron is able to wring more out of it than most directors pull from the most complex of narratives. This is all about the human will to survive, it just happens to be set against the backdrop of the most incredible starscape (possibly a word I just made up) you will ever see. Cuaron’s actors are both outstanding (and yes, I said both because there are basically only two characters in this film) and deserve special mention. Clooney’s is much more of a supporting performance than you might guess but he is his usual, charming, ridiculously focused self. And Bullock, I believe unquestionably, will see her name on just about every Best Actress award list the industry has to offer. This is by far the most human Bullock has ever seemed and as a result, her performance is powerful and reflexive. But with all due respect to both Clooney and Bullock, Gravity’s stars are Cuaron and his camera.

The shots Cuaron puts on display are some of the most outstanding examples of what you can do with a camera that I have ever seen. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that Gravity is propelled by the best cinematography I have ever seen in a film. Ever. EVER, you guys. I’ve watched hundreds, if not thousands, of space-related films and Cuaron does things in this movie that don’t even seem possible. If you didn’t know better, you might think Gravity is a documentary shot with the most advanced camera ever invented. Cuaron uses his setting to great and sometimes devastating effect, creating an insane level of intensity that jumps off in the opening moments and carries over literally to the very last frame of the movie. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be stranded in space, Gravity has the answers for you and they are chilling and haunting but nonetheless breathtaking.

All of this makes Gravity an unquestionably strong film. I would take it a step further. If I had to choose right here and now, I think I would feel good about calling Gravity one of the ten best movies I have ever seen. Given the scale of the film, given the difficulty of the subject matter, given the way in which Cuaron brought it all together with the best camerawork I have witnessed to date, it belongs in a special category. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. But again, this brilliance absolutely will not translate to a 42 inch Samsung. Find an IMAX screen and pony up the extra cash for a 3D showing and buckle up for a ride that is just as much experience as it is movie. Grade: A+ (Rated PG-13 for seriously extreme intensity and some language)