Movie Review: “The Monuments Men” (George Clooney, USA/Germany 2014)

Let’s pretend for a moment that George Clooney’s directing career were his real career. Let’s ignore his stardom and look at what he’s done as a filmmaker. In 2002, Clooney exploded onto the scene with a surprisingly assured and visually audacious debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (USA/Germany/Canada). Having a Charlie Kaufman screenplay based on one of the most interesting “autobiographies” of all time and an extraordinary lead actor* definitely made it easier for him, but the death scene on the swimming pool is one of the most striking scenes I can ever remember seeing in a film, and the film, while something of a narrative mess, definitely showcases a director with a real eye.

He has since followed a schedule, releasing a new film every three years. In 2005, he released an excellent film that retained the visual power of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind while also showcasing an admirable ability to craft a tightly-focused narrative in Good Night, and Good Luck. (USA/France/UK/Japan). At that point, with an Oscar nomination in his back pocket, Clooney looked like a director to watch. Then, he released a forgettable screwball comedy about the early days of professional football that really got little traction. Then, disastrously, he returned to the political realm he had used so well for Good Night, and Good Luck. for his 2011 film The Ides of March (USA). While his visual craftsmanship and casting ability remained apparent, the film was one of the few I can ever remember seeing that was quite simply remarkably stupid. It was a vapid, shallow point (The entire point of the film is a line spoken by its lead character: “You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t fuck the interns! They get you for that!” And, no, it did not come out in 1997.) made artlessly in a film that seemed naively shocked at any impropriety by modern politicians.

So, with that career in mind, we see that he has gone behind the camera again for a film whose trailer seems to suggest that the story has about six acts and that the main reason to see the film is its cast that would have qualified best for “star-studded” status twenty years earlier. The film tells the rather odd-sounding story of a military unit in World War II charged with saving pieces of art from destruction at Hitler’s hands, but there’s an interesting moment in the trailer when Clooney says that, as silly as their mission may sound, “this is what we’re fighting to protect—a way of life.” The film then looks like it has the potential to be an interesting exploration of the importance of art to a society, a subject that is going to be near and dear to the heart of any filmmaker, especially one as politically aware as Clooney. So, we have a filmmaker with a great eye seemingly working on a film with a clear point that’s right in his wheelhouse. He’s misfired a couple of times in a row, but after showing so much promise, he has to knock this one out of the park, right?

Well, there is no joy in Mudville. Mighty Clooney has struck out.

The film really has no idea what its point is, interjecting lectures about the value of art while it tells its story of this ragtag group of semi-bumblers working to find the art but never really connecting the two. It’s too busy telling the story of what happened with this group of men to continue making its point, which makes the entire point of the film feel like a lecture added onto the film after completion.

And even the story that the film tells is a mess, jumping around among the lead characters with no clear aims as they take actions whose significance is only made clear by heavy-handed after-the-fact discussion. It feels like a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive story, which is a major problem for a film that has already jettisoned its real point in order to tell a story. Further, Clooney depends entirely on the star power of his actors to carry interest in these characters, who are otherwise never defined. Using an all-star cast is a way to force the audience to invest interest in ill-defined or dull characters, but Clooney does it using a couple of has-been stars (Bill Murray and John Goodman), a few recognizable faces who are nonetheless well short of being stars (Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, and Bob Balaban), and two legitimate stars (Clooney and Matt Damon, both of whom one could argue are also has-beens, since they were more popular 10-20 years ago than they are today) and isn’t using this technique because of a focus on story or point over characters but rather just to make up for his own shortcomings in drawing them.

Tone is also a major problem within the film, as it has no idea whether it’s a fun romp, something deadly serious, or somewhere in between. It is constantly veering between fun, silly vignettes and then the type of death and destruction that typically populates war movies. It doesn’t know which is its focus, and it certainly isn’t making any points by juxtaposing the extremes.

With this cast, one would expect that the acting would be a silver lining in this film even with its other problems. However, no one is given enough to do to be particularly impressive and a couple of cast members are even problematic. Bill Murray, who I still believe should have an Oscar on his mantle, seems completely unsure who his character is and bounces illogically between his typical laconicism, a knowing goofiness, and an odd cynicism. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett seems to be playing some sort of parody of a French woman in a film from 1940 rather than any kind of real character, somehow managing the incredible trick of coming across as both wooden and over the top at the same time.

Working again with his Ides of March cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Clooney’s eye doesn’t really fail him here, but the film also lacks the flare that he displayed in the past. It’s a perfectly competent film that does some dynamic lighting and definitely doesn’t do anything wrong, but it plays it safe in a way that Clooney has been very good about avoiding in the past. It looks exactly how you expect it to look from the poster, which is a sign of competence, but also a sign that the film is less interesting than it could have been.

Alexandre Desplat’s score also deserves a note, as it was quite hideous but also something of a victim of the film’s tonal problems. Desplat essentially scored the film as an out-and-out comedy, but since Clooney didn’t make that, the score often feels out of place. It often sounds like some sort of parody of the score to The Great Escape (John Sturges, USA 1963) for a film that has nothing in common with that earlier masterpiece.

The Monuments Men is really nothing short of a disaster. It’s a film that has no idea what it wants to be and so succeeds in being nothing. It is a failure on nearly every level and even its successes are only partial successes.

*Sam Rockwell is extraordinary. How the guy has managed to be relatively obscure with that talent is a question that keeps me awake at night.

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Movie Review: “Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse” (Fritz Lang, Germany 1933)

This was Fritz Lang’s final film in Germany before he escaped to France and eventually the United States, fleeing the encroaching Nazi regime. When the film was released, Joseph Goebbels called Lang into his office to inform Lang that this film was being banned but also was so impressed with the film and Lang in general that he offered Lang a position heading a film studio, but Lang (who would be identified as Jewish under the laws of Nazi rule) instead left the country. It seems that he had been worried about the oncoming regime for some time, and his worries about the Nazis may indeed have been the driving force behind his final message to his home country.

Today, the idea of the crazed serial killer becoming a figure of such cult fascination that others take up his cause after his incarceration or death is so commonplace that it’s laughably predictable, but in 1933, Lang and co-writer Thea van Harbou were doing something film audiences had not seen before. In Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Fritz Lang, Germany 1922), they had already introduced the character of Dr. Mabuse, an undeniably brilliant lunatic who turns his powerful mind to crime and hypnosis. His facility with hypnosis allows him to force others to commit his crimes according to his perfect plans until he is finally captured and locked away in an asylum. This film, a direct sequel, sees Mabuse still institutionalized but somehow apparently managing a criminal gang outside the walls of his confinement. Mabuse is silent but writes constantly, writing out specific criminal plans as well as a theory of a needed “empire of crime” that will so frighten the people that they will allow for the complete restructuring of government and society that he believes is necessary. The “mystery” of the film really begins when Mabuse dies early and yet his criminal syndicate continues, though the resolution of that mystery is far from surprising: his treating doctor (Dr. Baum) is actually leading the syndicate, having apparently been possessed either by Mabuse’s ideals or Mabuse’s spirit.

The connections between Mabuse’s “empire of crime” and the Third Reich seem quite obvious, so much so that it’s surprising that the regime did not either imprison or kill the director. This film seems made as a warning about the dangers of the incoming Nazi party as much as anything, and it certainly succeeds in explaining what it fears about them. The one problem is that it doesn’t stay on point about that throughout. As was often the case with films in this time period, it strays in order to include a silly love story that feels so shoehorned into place that one cannot help but wonder if Lang wanted to include it at all and to suggest the possibility of a supernatural reason for Dr. Baum’s actions—the latter transgression apparently being one that Lang regretted thereafter even though one could argue that the “possession” is merely symbolic of what happens in Baum’s mind.

Still, the film mostly presents itself as a taut thriller that loses its way here and there, often ratcheting up the tension admirably and probably surprising much more in its day than it does over 80 years later.

Lang and cinematographers Karoly Vass and Fritz Arno Wagner continue much of what Lang had already established in his legendary early work that would become the basis for the visual style of later film noir: low-key lighting with shafts of high-contrast light, long takes, the use of silence as a tool of tension, and constant changing of the lighting to fit the tone of the scene. Some of the visuals are a bit difficult in this film because it has simply degraded badly over time to the point that it often looks bad, but if we use a bit of imagination to think about what Lang must have been envisioning and indeed seen in 1933, it’s quite an excellent visual film. I must also note that the scene between Baum and the ghostly Mabuse, while Lang may have regretted it, is surprisingly effective visually—the ghost is hardly laughable and even his “possession” (if it may be so called) is a powerful image. It’s certainly lacking in realism compared to today’s special effects, but we’re talking about a ghost anyway, so who cares about realism? It’s an impressive achievement to get through such a scene without being laughable 80 years later.

The acting is incredibly uneven, with some performances so poor and dated that they have become laughable while others are excellent. Gustav Diessl, while he is given a rather annoying character in Thomas Kent, is absolutely incredible, so heartbreaking in his attempted romance with Lilli and desire not to engage in murder that it makes the audience want to root for him in spite of his criminality. Wera Liessem as the object of his affections is quite the opposite—beautiful but careening wildly between woodenness and the type of overacting that make people today laugh at early films. Otto Wernicke is excellent in a rather simple role as Kriminalkomissar Lohmann, the detective who unwinds this tale, coming across as a brilliant grouse in the mold of Sherlock Holmes in one of his worst moods but also evincing a strength of morality that Doyle would never have allowed such a logical character to contain. Rudolf Klein-Rogge is given a difficult task, playing a rather unbelievable character in Dr. Mabuse and playing him mostly silently and with little movement, but he does an excellent job with what he’s given, making Mabuse seem far more believable than he should be. Karl Meixner also has a difficult role, playing disgraced former police officer Hofmeister who is driven insane by discovering Mabuse and his plans, but is far less successful in his performance, coming across as simply over the top.

As is often the case with older films, Hans Erdmann and Walter Sieber’s score is extremely melodramatic and distracting. Lang used a lot of silence and a lot of talking scenes still do not have score, and that was definitely a good decision in this case. The opening scene, using the sound of machinery as the only sound and sort of a score that sets the tone for the film, is by far the most effective sound in the entire picture.

All told, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse is a very good—if not perfect—film. It is a fitting end to the German career of one of the great directors in history and shows signs of his future as one of the great directors of American film noir. It may not be the easiest watch, since the plot, the music, and some of the performances have not aged well (and the stock apparently has not either) and it certainly isn’t up to the level of Metropolis (Germany 1927) or M (Germany 1931) in Lang’s canon, but it’s a rewarding watch that provides an interesting insight into how at least some people viewed the oncoming storm that was the Nazi party in Germany.