Monday, February 10, 2014

'Monuments Men' Review + Spoilers

MONUMENTS MEN
Directed by GEORGE CLOONEY
Starring GEORGE CLOONEY, MATT DAMON, CATE BLANCHETT, BILL MURRAY, 
BOB BALABAN, JOHN GOODMAN, and JEAN DUJARDIN

'Monuments Men' is based on the novel of the same name by Robert Esdel and is described as the "greatest treasure hunt in history." This may not be far from the truth. I could never imagine a world without artistic masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's David, Picasso, or da Vinci's Last Supper, but that was exactly what was at stake. I remembered reading about the recent discovery of 1,500 art pieces found in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt. Gurlitt was the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was an art dealer during the Nazi regime. It was determined that a large portion of this art was likely stolen by the Nazis from private Jewish collectors who were no doubt killed in concentration camps. Gurlitt's hidden stash is an ugly reminder of this atrocious time in history and why the 'Monuments Men' were needed in the first place.
Matt Damon and George Clooney
IF YOU DESTROY AN ENTIRE 
generation of people's culture, it's as if THEY NEVER EXISTED. THAT'S WHAT  
Hitler wants, and it's the one thing 
WE CAN'T ALLOW. 
Frank Stokes [Monuments Men] 

'Monuments Men' starts with Lieutenant Frank Stokes (George Clooney, who also directs) trying to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a roomful of VIPs, that saving Europe's priceless art collections is a worthy cause. With Roosevelt's reluctant approval, Stokes starts "collecting" the men he needs for the 'monumental' job of retrieving stolen art behind enemy lines. Stokes' character is based on the real-life George Stout, who was the founder of the 'Monuments Men' and an art conservationist at Harvard University.

Stokes' first choice is a Metropolitan Museum of Art curator with "a bad ticker," Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon). He quickly recruits a colorful architect Sergeant Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), a talented sculptor Sgt Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and theater director Private Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). When the group hops the pond to the UK for basic training, they are met by a drunken, but witty Major Donald Jeffries (Huge Bonneville of 'Downton Abbey'), suave art teacher Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin of 'The Artist'), and a young German-American soldier who serves as their translator, Private Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas). Cate Blanchette plays Claire, a French art curator, who reluctantly collaborated with the Nazis, whilst secretly working with the French Resistance. 
Matt Damon (Granger), Hugh Bonneville (Jeffries), and George Clooney (Stokes)
'Monuments Men' is an adventure story, although it tries very hard to be a heist movie, but the best part of this movie is that it is based on a true story. 'Monuments Men' tells the somewhat unknown tale of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program during World War II. The 'Monuments Men,' as they were called, were tasked with saving Europe's most culturally significant art pieces from the certain destruction by the imploding Nazi regime. The Nazis stole a good portion of Europe's art for a potential "Fuhrer Museum" in hopes of a 1,000 Year Reich, which thankfully never came to fruition. Towards the end of the Nazi regime, German soldiers were given standing orders by Hitler himself, that if/when the regime fell, they should destroy all of the archives, records (which also documented the systematic genocide against the Jewish people), and all of the stolen art. It lends credence to Franklin Stokes' above quote, if you destroy a people's culture then you also destroy the people.
The Monuments Men
So 'Monuments Men' decided to do everything they could to stop it. It's unfortunate that there wasn't a commission charged to rescue the unfortunate souls being murdered in concentration camps. But I digress, the 'Monuments Men' was a joint venture between Allied forces made up of 13 nations. The film focuses on the efforts of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Apparently, the Russians didn't get the memo, as they themselves were stealing art during the liberation of Europe. Matt Damon's character reiterates that the Russians lost a staggering 20 million people during World War II, which may be the reason behind their "finders keepers" mentality.

One thing to remember is that it's a movie, not a documentary, so it is a fictionalized version of a true tale. But the cast of the 'Monuments Men' were based on real-life people, some of whom lost their lives in this noble quest. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Major Jeffries is shot and killed whilst trying to rescue his favorite work of art, Michelangelo's 'Madonna and Child' of Bruges. The 'Madonna and Child' is a magnificent piece and one could understand why Jeffries would gallantly die protecting it, despite not being Catholic. Art connects us as human beings. Whether the art was drawn in caves thousands of years ago, in Egyptian pyramids, or sculpted in medieval Europe, art is one of the things that makes us human.
Matt Damon (Granger) and Cate Blanchett (Claire) 
Like the film, the real Major Jeffries' (Major Ronald Balfour) death was both tragic and heroic. Balfour was a medieval historian from Cambridge. He was known to hitchhike to and from historical sites. Balfour was killed by an infantry shell while trying to remove an altarpiece from a church. Although Balfour may have not been directly involved with the rescue of the 'Madonna and Child,' the 'Monuments Men' did in fact rescue the 'Madonna and Child' and the 'Ghent's Altarpiece.' The Ghent Altarpiece is a paneled masterpiece by Jan Van Eyck in 1432.
The Real 'Monuments Men'
The movie does get bogged down in the middle with sentimentality and a lack of focus. One such scene is when Campbell (Murray's character) receives an audio recording on a record from his family, whom he dearly misses. Savitz, his rival and friend, finds a phonograph and plays the record for him over the intercom. Campbell's wife serenades him 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,' with lines that were not written until 1957--a full 12 years after this film was set. A minor gaffe, but still. Was this necessary? It did nothing to move the story along. My father was a soldier in Vietnam, his uncle was a soldier in World War II, my great-grandfather died in World War I. Those of us who come from military families know that soldiers miss their families. It's a given. Showing that a soldier is homesick does not have to be so heavy handed. It could have been much more subtle.
The Ghent Altarpiece
Then there is Cate Blanchett's character, who is severely under utilized. This was a bit role, which given the character's real-life importance, is confounding. Blanchett's character was based on the real-life curator Rose Valland, a reluctant secretary for Nazi Hermann Goring in the Jeu de Paume Museum. She risked her life to document every piece of artwork shipment Goring transported. Surprisingly, this role was so underused in the film that it could have been completely written out. I'm not sure why Blanchett was in the movie, except to say that STARRING CATE BLANCHETT.

Then there was a possible romance between Blanchett and Damon's characters. Blanchett's character tries to seduce Damon's character, despite knowing that he was married. I know this type of thing unfortunately happens, but it didn't make sense in this context. I've heard of the Mr. Darcy-effect (I hate you, no I love you), but one moment Blanchett's character has nothing but disdain for Damon's character, then she not only attempts to seduce him, but she is eager to hand over her her journal, which is the key to recovering much of the stolen art. The journal part I understand, as once she came to trust him, the 'Monuments Men' needed all the help they could get locating the stolen art, but the seduction was strange. It was almost like, "hey we have Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon in the same room, let's make them kiss." Perhaps there is more to this scene on the cutting room floor? You wouldn't know it from the film, but Valland's records were primarily responsible for the recovery of thousands of masterpieces. Blanchett's character should have been more integral to the storyline.
John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban, and Bill Murray
But the main problem with the film is that Clooney tries to make this a light-hearted heist movie, instead of a war movie. One of the most heart wrenching moments in the movie is when the 'Monuments Men' discover a barrel of gold teeth fillings in the Nazi hoard, which was taken from victims of the Holocaust. It has been well documented that the Nazis took holocaust victims gold teeth, hair, and clothing. The Nazis committed terrible crimes, the least of which was stealing Europe's great artworks. The seriousness of the subject matter should have changed the direction of the film. I'm not saying that the film couldn't have had moments of levity or humor, but Clooney should have taken a page out of Spielberg's playbook. More 'Saving Private Ryan,' less 'The Italian Job.'

Yet, I really enjoyed this movie. 'Monuments Men' is a beautiful film. The sets and the scenery are lush and amazing. 'Monuments Men' was primarily filmed in Germany and that is something that cannot easily be faked. I also enjoyed the movie because it showed a slice of world history that I was not aware of. The sheer volume of the Nazis thievery was almost unfathomable. I was unaware of the near destruction of art masterpieces. In that aspect, 'Monuments Men' was eye-opening and intriguing. I would recommend it for the art history buff. Had I not seen this movie I would have never known about these incredible men and women who saved five million works of art from certain oblivion and considering the most recent find in Gurlitt's Munich apartment, the 'Monuments Men' may still be needed.

THREE OUT FIVE STARS

9 comments:

  1. I've seen ads for this movie and as good as it looks, I don't have time to see it what with exams going on. :(

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  2. I plan on seeing this I love history flicks. I went this weekend instead to The Lego Movie with my daughter. Maybe I can get my wife to go with me to see it. She can be a sucker for Clooney.

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  3. Great review! I'll probably catch this on DVD for Clooney and Dujardin but it looks like typical movie made by Clooney - wasted potential, mediocre result.

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  4. DWei-- I would recommend it, although it does have some flaws.

    David-- I have heard about the Lego movie. I want to see that one too. You will have to review it! Your wife will love Clooney in this movie.

    Sati-- Thanks! Yes. I like both Clooney and Dujardin, but you're spot on about Clooney's direction. It could have been a great movie with some tweaks.

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  5. I'd heard the film had issues, but I still want to see it. Amazing what the real men did trying to secure the artwork for future generations.

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  6. Alex-- I agree. The film had problems, but I would still recommend it. I did enjoy watching it.

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  7. As much as I think this movie is important it just sounds so boring. Guys saving paintings? I dunno. Good review though Ms. Mariah.

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  8. It wasn't boring, but it could have been so much better.

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  9. Very nice review, Mariah! I have my reservations about seeing this one being quite interested in World War II. I'd like to see how George makes this tale come to life but part of me is reluctant - it doesn't seem to be living up to critics' expectations. Mine were very high!
    I may take some time to see this when it comes out on dvd. :)

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