REVIEW: “The Monuments Men”

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Inspired by an incredible true story and armed with a wonderful ensemble cast, “The Monuments Men” has all the ingredients to be a sure thing. The talent behind the film starts with George Clooney who co-writes, stars, and takes another turn at directing. Clooney has directed some fantastic movies but “Leatherheads” and “The Ides of March” showed us that he’s far from infallible. But I was excited once I saw “The Monuments Men” on the horizon and it quickly became one of my most eagerly anticipated films. Pretty high expectations, right?

I first heard the story of “The Monuments Men” from author Robert Edsel. He was doing an interview and talking about his new book which told the true story of Allied soldiers who sought out and saved important works of art from Hitler and the Nazis during World War 2. It’s incredible stuff and once I heard about a film adaptation I was hooked. Clooney’s picture is loosely based on the actual events which feeds the movie’s strengths but also its weaknesses. So far people have pounced on the film expecting more from it or wanting something entirely different. Personally I thought “The Monuments Men” was fantastic.

Monuments2While watching the film my very first feelings were nostalgic. “The Monuments Men” is a throwback to the old ensemble war pictures but with its own unique twist. I immediately began thinking of movies like “The Green Berets”, “The Guns of Navarone”, and “The Dirty Dozen”. Even the end credits hearken back to those older pictures. My father loved these films and growing up I was able to watch them and learn to appreciate them. I think Clooney gets that and he knows what he’s doing. I give him a ton of credit for recapturing the vibes and nuances of those past genre pieces.

But the big difference between this film and the older ones can be found in the characters. This team isn’t comprised of hardened frontline soldiers. These are common men who possess particular skills needed to complete this unique mission. They are museum curators, art historians, and architects. They are older men who are more comfortable with Picassos and Monets than machine guns and hand grenades. Their mission brings them in as the war in Europe is ending. But even though they slip around the battlefields and combat, eventually the elements of the war effects them. They are at times joking and playful – it’s what you could expect from these types of characters. But they are no longer curating museums, designing skyscrapers, or painting. They are in the war and they constantly come across sober reminders of that.

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I love this entire dynamic which diverts the movie from a common action-oriented path. There really isn’t much action at all which hurts the film in some people’s estimation. Personally I don’t think the story calls for much action. Instead it focuses on the mother of all treasure hunts through an assortment of beautiful European locales. But their mission isn’t easy. There are still wartime tensions, a greedy Russian army, and the Nazis who are under direct orders from Hitler to destroy everything. The seven who make up The Monuments Men split up and spread out across Europe hunting clues, fleeing danger, and tracking down as much stolen art as they can.

Clooney’s film has plenty of shifts in tone. The movie sometimes feels easygoing and lighthearted only to be dark and somber a few scenes later. Some have taken issue with this saying the humor feels out of place. I completely disagree because I found the humor to be measured and conscientious. The humor was there but it felt light. There were never any attempts at big laugh-out-loud moments which would have really been jarring.

And then there is the cast. I love watching good actors act and we certainly get to do that. Clooney plays the team leader and he’s joined by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville. Everyone of them gives fine performances and there is some unique chemistry that develops. Cate Blanchett is also excellent playing someone based on the fascinating real Rose Valland. All of these characters are given their moments to shine and we are given small bits of information about them along the way. Unfortunately it’s not enough to fully develop the characters – only to make us want to know more about them. That was a little disappointing although a movie like this could get bogged down with layers upon layers of backstory.

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Phedon Papamichael (who also did brilliant work in 2013’s “Nebraska”) offers up some fine cinematography and the war-torn set designs look amazing. Alexandre Desplat’s score adds to the film’s old-school flavor that Clooney is obviously shooting for. The performances, the nostalgia, the clever balance of the script, the uniqueness of the story. Everything I’ve mentioned comes together in a film that I found satisfying but many others clearly didn’t. What has caused the strong backlash to this film? Was it the lack of action, the deliberate pacing, the scattered storytelling? These things are certainly present but for me they made it a better film and they help steer it away from the conventional movie we could have gotten.

As a lover of art and World War II history, the story of “The Monuments Men” connected with me from the start. As a lover of the fun ensemble war pictures that were all but gone by the end of the 1960s, Clooney’s vision and approach hits the target. To say I’m bewildered by the negative reception to this film is an understatement. I don’t quite know what to make of it. But movies are a funny thing and they certainly effect people differently. For me this was a real treat – a movie that doesn’t pander to conventionalism, moves at its own pace, and treats its subject with respect. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s certainly not a bad film either and I for one loved it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

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I am such a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen. Dating back to 1984 with their first film “Blood Simple”, the brothers have put together an incredible filmography, etching out a prominent name for themselves in the process. Not only that, they have developed into some of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Armed with a sharp wit and an undeniable style, the Coens have taken their special brand of cinema to a variety of places. Their latest is the early 1960s New York folk music scene. The film is “Inside Llewyn Davis” and while it may not be the best Coen brothers movie, it is undeniably theirs.

I was so glad to hear that Oscar Isaac had gotten the lead role. This criminally underrated actor has amazing acting chops yet rarely gets big leading parts. Here he plays Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck musician struggling to get by in 1961 New York City. Llewyn’s singing partner has committed suicide, his solo album isn’t selling, and he is flat broke. He spends his nights on the couches of different acquaintances and his days trying to get enough gigs to get by until his big break comes.

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There really isn’t a lot of plot in “Inside Llewyn Davis”. We basically spend a few days with Llewyn witnessing his routine and seeing the nature of his struggles. It doesn’t take long to learn that Llewyn is his own worst enemy. He’s constantly driving people away whether it’s fellow musicians, family, hospitable friends, or even girlfriends. Llewyn is selfish, uncompromising, and irresponsible yet he never casts an examining light on himself. He’s not a character who will draw the audience’s affection. Much like the other people in his life, we can’t get that close to him even though we feel sympathy towards him. Llewyn is an extremely talented musician. He just needs to get himself out of the way.

This is a colder Coen brothers picture that clearly has no desire to be hopeful or uplifting. Perhaps that why I had trouble embracing the film at first. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying a movie has to be uplifting or hopeful. I don’t believe that at all. But watching Llewyn continually self-destruct for the entire film had me wishing for a glimmer of hope. There are a few scenes of the Coen’s signature dark humor that occasionally lighten things up, but mostly this is a pointed, unflinching character drama that captivated me while still holding me at arms length.

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As with all Coen brothers films this one is loaded with an assortment of interesting characters and captivating faces. We get quick but great roles for John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good as a fellow musician who is married to Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean. She’s played by Carey Mulligan who is very good in the role. But her character is one of the few Coen creations that could have been handled better. She’s abrasive and profane to the point of being distracting. There is a subtle attempt at humor with Jean and her harsh personality but she disappears before we are allowed to see the compassionate side we are teased with. But this is Oscar Isaac’s show and he gives an Oscar-worthy performance. He brilliantly flexes his acting and singing muscles in what I hope is some career-launching work.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” has all the other traits you would expect from Joel and Ethan Coen. There is beautiful cinematography. The sense of time and place is impeccable. The music is unforgettable and the film features arguably the best soundtrack of the year. And it’s certainly a smart film featuring great vision and unquestionable craftsmanship. But for me it doesn’t quite rank up there with the Coen’s best pictures. That said, this is another time capsule experience brought to us by two of the best in the business, and anytime they make a movie it’s something special. Better yet, it has stuck with me and different themes from the film keep coming to mind. That a sign of something good.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“Flight” – 3 STARS

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If you watch the trailers for “Flight” you come away expecting this to be a movie about a doomed flight and the heroic pilot who tries to save it. But as with so many trailers whose lone goal is to sell a product, this isn’t the case at all. It’s the story of a self-destructive man whose many vices are brought out into the spotlight by one heroic deed. It marks Robert Zemeckis’ return to live action movies, this being his first since “Cast Away” in 2000.

“Flight” stars Denzel Washington so automatically there’s one thing you know for sure – the lead performance is going to be strong. Here he plays an airline pilot named William “Whip” Whitaker. After a mostly sleepless night of booze, drugs, and sex with one of his flight attendants, Whip heads out to pilot a commercial airliner from Orlando to Atlanta. I don’t think this will be scheduled as an in-flight movie anytime soon. Right off the bat the film introduces us to Whip’s raging alcoholism. Before the flight even takes off, he slips two travel bottles of vodka into his orange juice before heading into the cockpit. Washington handles this subject matter like an old pro. Scene after scene we see him in his self-inflicted hell and as despicable as his actions are, he causes us to feel sympathy for this character.

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After taking a questionable risk to get through some turbulence after takeoff, Whip falls asleep while copilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) flies the plane. But he’s jarred awake after the plane goes into a nose dive while approaching Atlanta. Whip takes control of the situation and pulls off an incredible series of maneuvers before landing the plane in a field. Watching this was an incredibly intense visual experience and its one of the best movie moments from last year. The impact knocks him unconscious and he later wakes up in an Atlanta hospital. He learns from pilot union head and old friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) that his heroics saved 96 people of the 102 on board.

This creates one of the most interesting dynamics in the entire film. As Whip says, “No one else could have landed that plane” and his heroics seem unquestionable. But due to the loss of life, mandatory investigations have to take place which uncover his drunkenness during the time of the crash. As I mentioned above, his one amazing deed which saved many lives turns out to reveal his darkest secrets. A team is put together to try and cover up his intoxication. Charlie brings in attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) who believes he has all the pieces to keep things under wraps. But it turns out that Lang is not just fighting the evidence. He’s fighting the uncontrollable alcoholism of his client.

“Flight” does good when it stays on course and focuses on Whip’s problems and the potential trouble he faces due to the crash. Washington is amazing to watch and I also really liked Greenwood and Cheadle. But there’s also a side story where Whip gets together with a recovering heroin addict (Kelly Reilly). This really didn’t work for me at all other than to show the depths of Whip’s fall via a handful of scenes. The two seem to connect through their desperation but as a whole I just didn’t buy into or care about their relationship. Unfortunately this takes up a big hunk of the middle part of the picture and I can think of other ways I wish they would’ve spent that time.

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I also didn’t care for what I feel was Zemeckis’ gratuitous use of some of his content. The opening features a nude scene which goes on and on and (as is often the case) adds nothing to the film. Zemeckis pulls his camera back and for seemingly no other reason than to have nudity in his picture, he keeps it going while Nadine Velazquez parades around while on display. I had similar feelings about John Goodman’s character. No, thankfully he doesn’t walk around in the buff, but his character’s foul mouth seems so forced. I know he’s a dope dealer but his dialogue is at times terrible and it seems like it’s straining to include profanity. I’m not trying to get on a soapbox about movie content, but both of these instances in “Flight” really pushed me away.

Unfortunately these gripes of mine played a big role in my overall experience with “Flight”. There’s a really great movie somewhere in what we get but you have to cull the wasted moments to get to it. Washington is wonderful as always and through his performance we see a fascinating study on addiction and personal destruction. I only wish the movie could have stayed focused on it and that Zemeckis didn’t lose control of his mesmerizing central story. With a little pruning and a tighter vision, I think this could’ve been an even better film than it was.

Want more Denzel? Check out my reviews of “Safe House” and “The Taking of Pelham 123”.

REVIEW: “Argo”

And you thought movies were for entertainment only! “Argo” is the third feature film directed by Ben Affleck. It’s also his best work to date. “Argo” takes place during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and is loosely based on CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez’s bizarre but daring rescue attempt of six US diplomats. For the most part Affleck steers clear of politics instead choosing to focus more on the intensity of the events. This results in a well conceived and focused story that sizzles from the opening scene to the end credits.

The film opens up with what’s arguably the best 20 minutes in cinema so far this year. Affleck instantly sets the stakes high by showing the immediate causes of the unrest in Tehran through a brief but effective opening montage. In 1979 Iran was in chaos after the people had overthrown their unpopular Shah and replaced him with an Islamic Republic. Anti-American sentiment boiled over after the United States granted asylum to the deposed leader. Led by Islamic militants, a mass of people break into the US Embassy and begin taking hostages. Six diplomats manage to escape and find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. The protesting and subsequent storming of the US Embassy is packed with tension and it’s brilliantly visualized through a mix of old news footage and clever camera work. And I’m not just speaking of the hostile crowd outside of the gates. We see diplomats inside, fully expecting a breach, frantically gathering sensitive documents to incinerate and shred. We see last-minute contacts being made which sends Washington scurrying. All of this is realized as truly riveting, edge-of-your-seat cinema.

As mentioned, six American diplomats manage to escape and hide in the home of Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Knowing the militants will soon realize that six Americans are unaccounted for, the State Department brings in Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) to come up with a plan to get them out. He convinces his superiors to allow him to enter Tehran, meet up with the hidden diplomats, and leave the country with them posing as a Canadian film crew scouting out a location for a sci-fi movie. Knowing how thorough the militants will investigate the ruse if suspicious, Mendez is sent to movie make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a semi-successful Hollywood film producer. Together they put all the pieces in place for their fake movie including a title (“Argo”), a script, a production company, and even a movie poster, all intended to give credibility to Mendez’s cover.

The film then follows the planning of the mission, the anxiety of the diplomats in hiding, and the ever-present uncertainty in Washington from those who don’t fully buy into Mendez’s plan. All of this is told by the able hands of Affleck who has certainly established himself as a skilled storyteller. His style fits perfectly with Chris Terrio’s sharp and layered screenplay. Terrio crafts a potent dramatization by adding just enough to the real events to give the narrative a real dramatic pop. A couple of fictional characters are thrown in and there are moments that are purely for dramatic effect. But that’s what cinema does and I can’t imagine this story playing out any better than it does here. It also has the sharp sting of relevance. I couldn’t help but think of the recent Benghazi embassy attack During the film’s opening sequence.

You also can’t help but be impressed by the movie’s impeccable attention to detail in creating a believable late 70s and early 80s atmosphere and vibe. The movie opens with the old late 70s Warner Bros. logo which perfectly set the table for me. Then there are the obvious things – the cars, the clothes, the hairstyles, the technology. But Affleck also employs several clever devices such as original news footage featuring the likes of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Ted Koppel. We see archived footage of President Jimmy Carter as well as authentic newscasts of the turmoil in Iran at the time. It blends in perfectly with the fictional additions to give a true credence to everything we see on-screen.

“Argo” is a rock-solid movie that does all of these things well, and I haven’t even gone into the fantastic performances. Some have said otherwise, but I found Affleck to be a compelling lead. Then you have the incredible supporting work of Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, and Michael Parks. And of course Goodman and Arkin are a blast. The performances are just another strength and this gripping and well-made film. It grabs you and holds you right through to its nail-biting finale. And be sure to stay through the credits for some great images of the real people involved in this amazing rescue attempt. It’s just icing on the cake of one of the better films of 2012.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

No one does off-the-wall, quirky comedy like Joel and Ethan Coen and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is another example of that. The brothers have written and directed a wide variety of movies including crime dramas, gangster pictures, and even a remake of a John Wayne western classic. But the Coens always find their way back to their unique and peculiar brand of humor. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was released in 2000 and features so much of the Coen’s signature style and presentation.

The movie is a depression-era film set in rural Mississippi. It follows Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallup (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), three prisoners who escape and set out to recover a “treasure” that Everett hid after knocking off an armored car. The three come across a blind man who begins prophesying about their quest saying that they will find a fortune but not the one they seek. Pay close attention to this early scene because it does come back into play later on in the film. They take off on an adventure where they encounter backwoods relatives, a crazy sheriff, George “Babyface” Nelson, seductive river sirens, the Ku Klux Klan, and more.

This is a movie that’s truly more about the journey than the destination. There are several familiar subtext and certainly an interesting ending that deals with a couple of common Coen themes. But it’s getting to that ending that offers the most enjoyment. Also, many Coen brothers films focus on specific regions of the country as well as incorporate clever usages of language. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is no different. The recreation of rural Mississippi during the 1930’s is fabulous. The three travel through period-perfect small towns, swampy yet beautiful bayous, and lush green forests. The film has an amazingly authentic look to it. The heightened accents and deep south lingo help give it more of a southern tang but also injects the movie with some of it funniest moments. The brothers’ almost poetic butchering of language is such fun and is just as regionally centered as several of their other films such as “Raising Arizona”, “Fargo”, and “No Country for Old Men”.

Music plays a big role in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. The film is filled with bluegrass, folk music, country gospel, and southern blues. One of the movies funnier turns is when the boys unwittingly create and record a smash hit song that becomes the hottest thing in the state. The song, titled “Man of Constant Sorrow”, won several awards including a Grammy. The music is spot on and adds so much to the picture. It’s clearly intended to be an important part of the storytelling and it really works regardless of whether you like that type of music or not.

The performances are strong throughout the film. Clooney really shows off his comedic side and perfectly subjects himself to the material. Nelson is great as a naive simpleton who you can’t help but love and Coen regular John Turturro is also quite good. We also get Coen favorites John Goodman as a loony one-eyed Bible salesman and Holly Hunter as Penny, Everett’s ex-wife. Ray McKinnon, one of my favorite character actors in the industry, has a small but fun role as a campaign manager and Penny’s “bona fide suitor”. Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Wayne Duvall, and Lee Weaver also give really good performances. The Coen’s are particular when it comes to casting and this film, like so many others, shows the benefits of that.

I’ve only scratched the surface of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. The movie also takes humorous looks at subjects ranging from southern politics to racism. It’s sharp dialogue and wacky antics may not appeal to everyone and they do occasionally feel a little overdone. But it’s still a remarkably well-crafted and well-written film, exactly what you would expect from Joel and Ethen Coen. The film is made with the same impressive stylistic technique that we’ve seen in other Coen films yet it creates its own unique look and feel. There’s a lot going on under the surface and the movie offers plenty of laughs. Unlike most of today’s comedies, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” actually delivers.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Artist”

Many modern moviegoers may be tempted to skip a new black and white silent movie. That’s a shame because to do so would be to miss a near motion picture masterpiece that is one part celebration of cinema and another part exercise in masterful storytelling. Michel Hazanavicius wrote and directed this gorgeous film that exudes nostalgia and imagination in every scene. His willingness to tackle the handicaps that accompany a black and white silent picture is admirable but I must admit I was a little worried. Could Hazanavicius recreate a believable bygone era of filmmaking or would the results be a well-intended mess? A large grin spread across my face after seeing the classic-styled opening credits and I immediately knew I was in for something special.

“The Artist” reminds us of everything that is magical about movies. It reminds us of a time when creativity trumped huge elaborate effects and million dollar set pieces. It uses black and white to it’s advantage and even though there are times that you can tell it’s intentionally being nostalgic, I never doubted it’s sincerity or integrity. Making this a silent picture was a risky approach but it works perfectly here. From Harold Lloyd to Nosferatu, I’ve been a fan of silent cinema and “The Artist” could blend right in with the best of those films. It may be a flashback to an earlier style of filmmaking but this silent movie speaks louder and says more than most of what we see coming out of Hollywood.

One of the key ingredients to the success of “The Artist” can be found in the brilliant performance of Jean Dujardin. He plays George Valentin, a popular silent movie star with the world in his hands. He revels in the attention and limelight that he gets from the starry-eyed public, an obsessed media, and the head of Kinograph Studios, Al Zimmer (John Goodman). But when the studio makes the shift from silent pictures to talkies, George finds himself pushed out and replaced by younger, fresher faces, most notably an energetic and beautiful actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). George’s world crumbles around him but it’s his pride that may be his ultimate undoing. Dujardin loses himself in his character and captures the essence of a silent movie performance. But as the film progresses he draws you in with his crushing and deeply moving work. Expression is essential to his performance and Dujardin nails every grin, wink, head tilt, or mannerism. It’s beautifully expressive and his charm and command of every scene makes it unforgettable.

Bejo’s performance lives up to her character’s name. She’s spirited and lively and while it could be said that she over does it in a few scenes, she encapsulates what you would expect from a young aspiring actress from that era. And her chemistry with Dujardin is magnetic. It’s also fun to see such a wonderful supporting cast many of which have small roles. The great James Cromwell, Ed Lauter, and Malcolm McDowell each have small but entertaining roles in the film. Hazanavicius uses them perfectly. And how could I not mention one of the best animal performance in movie history from Uggie the dog?

“The Artist” is a phenomenal cinematic accomplishment and Hazanavicius’ vision is rendered brilliantly through sparkling black and white and sharp direction of his incredible cast. I genuinely felt that I had traveled back in time to a more authentic and purer period of movie making. But “The Artist” isn’t all about nostalgia. At it’s core it’s a simple but beautiful drama laced with humor and romance. “The Artist” is a wonderful package from it’s visual style to it’s perfect score, from it’s razor sharp direction to it’s captivating leading man. In a year of love letters to cinema, none are better than this and it’s certainly worth all of the awards it’s sure to get.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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