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.

Movie Review: “Zero Dark Thirty” (Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2012)

After years of directing nondescript action films, Kathryn Bigelow exploded into prominence with her painful, suspenseful depiction of soldiers deployed in Iraq in The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2008), which eventually took home Academy Awards for Best Picture, her own direction, and Mark Boal’s screenplay.* I was not so impressed with the film, which I found rather aimless and unsure of its own direction. However, I had high hopes for this film, both because of its critical success (finishing second for Best Director and third for Best Film at the National Society of Film Critics Awards and receiving nominations for both from the Online Film Critics Society) and because the subject matter would seem to lend itself well to the style that Bigelow developed through her time directing action films and her attempt at a “serious” dark picture in The Hurt Locker.

In the end, while it did not quite live up to its hype, Zero Dark Thirty was a very good film that perhaps needed nothing more than someone else to have final cut over Bigelow’s work to be excellent. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a film that’s definitely worth watching.

The biggest problem with the film is that, while much of it seems assured of its point, it loses its way inside its story for a few segments (most notably its ending). Much of the film is exploring the idea that everything had to go right to find Osama bin Laden—the situation had to have the right mix of analytical logic, passionate certainty, and luck, or else it failed. At first, there is definite passion but a lack of logic, and while the passion manages to generate a single name as a lead, it doesn’t get any further. Then, analysis and logic combine with passion to get a step closer, leading to a calculated risk believing in a would-be mole who turns out (after a black cat crosses the street—seriously) to be an enemy operative, luck working against the heroes again. Finally, everything comes together in the end. However, the film is so interested in its lead character, who is the embodiment of passion in its depiction, that it often loses sight of where it’s going, instead examining her.

The dynamics of passion, logic, and luck throughout were reminiscent of the triumvirate at the heart of Star Trek—the logic and reason of Spock, the passion and emotion of Leonard McCoy, and Captain Kirk’s integration of the two into a cohesive ability to diagnose risks and choose the proper course of action. However, Gene Roddenberry was smart enough to use a lead character who represented the theoretical perfect mix of his two elements, where Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal instead use the embodiment of passion, the Dr. McCoy of their drama. Certainly she is an interesting character, particularly her position as a woman who is more determined and passionate about killing bin Laden at any cost than the men around her and has no more sympathy for the prisoners being tortured at the opening than anyone else. Bigelow and Boal also do an excellent job of exploring this character, including the brilliant moment when a prisoner tells her, “Your partner is a monster,” and begs for her help, only to have her respond that the prisoner can help himself by giving them the information they want. The problem is that the opening segments of the film (perhaps the first 40 minutes) and the ending spend all of their energy on this exploration, ignoring the larger point of the film.

Visually, Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser essentially establish two visual styles and move back and forth between them throughout the film. In the “field” shots, we have the yellow-hued dusty backgrounds, bright lights, and shaky hand-held camerawork that Bigelow and Barry Ackroyd used throughout The Hurt Locker, making these scenes more tense, closed-in, and realistic-feeling than they otherwise might be, but not taking the shaky camera to a distracting extreme like in Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, USA 2012). Meanwhile, “office” scenes (for lack of a better term), are shot with mostly static cameras, low-key lighting, and more of a blue hue. The combination emphasizes the difference between the passion driving the fieldwork and the logic and reason behind the officework, the tension between which is at the heart of the film. Meanwhile, they add noticeable but unobtrusive touches bringing luck into the equation: the black cat that crosses the path before a surprise car-bomb explosion is small and in the foreground far from the center of our attention in the background, while the horseshoes the SEALs use for entertainment seem secondary to their discussions prior to the final raid on bin Laden’s compound. All told, it’s simple but effective visual work. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s thoughtful and well-done.

Meanwhile, the acting throughout the film is superb. Jessica Chastain is an absolute coup of a casting job, performing a role that could easily be over-the-top with a perfect amount of restraint befitting a by-all-accounts intelligent CIA operative recruited straight out of high school. Her angelic beauty and seeming fragility are also perfect for the part, providing a character who would be viewed as non-threatening by enemies and too weak by comrades until she proves otherwise. The other performers with a large amount of screen time—Jason Clarke as an older operative, Jennifer Ehle as a less competent but well-meaning older operative, Kyle Chandler as the boss they are able to push around until it results in a disaster, and Mark Strong as the replacement who finally gets the team to the right place—are all excellent but have little to do. Bigelow also wisely populates some of the smaller roles in a world with many, many characters who could easily remain faceless with some recognizable actors: James Gandolfini appears as the CIA director, Chris Pratt appears as one of the SEALs, Mark Valley appears as a pilot, and John Barrowman appears as one of the less enthusiastic defense analysts advising Gandolfini.

Much of the film did not have score, but the moments that did were uneven. Alexandre Desplat (who has become the composer du jour in Hollywood, seemingly) provided score that was effective in some scenes, but it was also intrusive in several others, to the point that it was, overall, a distraction.

In conclusion, Zero Dark Thirty was a very good film that simply had some problems with its focus. It could have been improved with a stronger editorial hand, perhaps, but that just isn’t present in modern-day Hollywood. Looper (Rian Johnson, USA/China 2012) is still my pick as best picture of 2012, but Zero Dark Thirty is considerably better than anything else I’ve seen from the year.


*If anyone else wonders, here’s how it did in the awards I prefer to the Oscars: It also won picture and director from the National Society of Film Critics and the Online Film Critics Society.

Movie Review: “Argo” (Ben Affleck, USA 2012)

Let’s start with something that everyone should understand before going in: This film is a political film. It is 100% intended to help Barack Obama win re-election. It’s a jingoistic film meant to say, “Oh, look how awesome the USA is! And how peaceful solutions work! And how Muslims are capable of self-sacrifice and bravery too!” (Yes, sadly enough, it has to make that last point.) It’s Ben Affleck and George Clooney’s (also credited as a producer) contribution to Obama’s re-election fund, just as running the trailers for Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2012) since about June is Kathryn Bigelow’s and doing the same for Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA/India 2012) is Steven Spielberg’s. This type of politically-motivated filmmaking and releasing around election dates is not the slightest bit unusual. The only thing that’s unusual is that a couple of big-budget big studio films (Argo and Lincoln) are openly on the Democratic side (Even Spielberg, who made the most obvious piece of pro-Bush propaganda ever in The War of the Worlds [USA 2005], seemingly confirming that his foray into the business side of Hollywood had converted him politically!) where Hollywood’s heavy money is typically entirely on the Republican side (and those are around–Red Dawn [Dan Bradley, USA 2012] is the obvious typical piece of right wing action propaganda).

Unlike Clooney’s own political entry for this election, The Ides of March (George Clooney, USA 2011) (“You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t fuck the interns!” It’s great when a movie tells you everything you need to know about it in one line.), Affleck makes his political point with a bit of subtlety and care. One thing that has appeared clear throughout Affleck’s directing career so far is that he’s interested in taking a tight narrative within a typical genre and adding a confounding element, exploring what that confounding variable does to adjust the meaning and shape of that narrative. He’s also shown that he completely lacks visual imagination (which may be a side effect of going into directing immediately able to do whatever he wants, though the aforementioned Clooney has actually shown an impressive visual imagination in spite of the same circumstances), and a disturbing willingness to cast himself in spite of his own extreme limitations as an actor.

Considering Affleck’s career in those terms, Argo is exactly what one would expect. He begins with a fairly typical spy-thriller concept about a covert operation to pull a few hidden American embassy employees out of a riotous Iran filled with anti-American sentiment but adds the twist that the cover for the operation is . . . making a movie! So, we get a little comic relief foray into Hollywood making fun of itself. However, that foray is really nothing more than a short bit of comic relief–the film does not become a self-referential comedic genre exercise along the lines of The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet, USA 1997), The Player (Robert Altman, USA 1992), and The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2011). For me, that was a disappointing non-development, because I love that sort of self-referential comedy. However, I understand the decision on Affleck’s part (and it turns out that doing anything comedic would be problematic, after recent events that Affleck could not have anticipated), because it would have been easy for the levity to take over the film, and he keeps things very serious by putting the relief in its own box separated from everything else. It was almost like Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, USA 1986), which keeps Allen’s comedic plot separated from the more serious moments. The comedy gets enough breath that it does relieve what could have been an oppressively serious film, and keeping it separated from the serious plot was sensible, if not what I would choose.

Also, while it was a shame to see Affleck cast himself in ostensibly the starring role again, it turns out not to have been a problem in several ways. First, the character doesn’t show much of any emotion, allowing Affleck’s limitations to hide under his bizarre ’70s beard. Second, the few times when the character should show emotions, Affleck smartly doesn’t show his own face, relying on Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score and the situation to fill in what he himself cannot do. It’s a too-little-used but often effective trick (Watch The Omen [Richard Donner, UK/USA 1976] and pay attention to Gregory Peck’s emotional breakdown. It happens off-screen. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, one of the best in film history, gives that film a bit of an unfair advantage here, but why are people so rarely willing to admit to their actors’ limitations?), and Affleck definitely deserves credit for being willing to use it on himself. Overall, it turns out that his performance simply does not matter to the film.

However, Affleck once again lets himself down with a complete lack of visual imagination. The film just doesn’t have anything interesting to it visually. It’s competent, sure, but it’s absolutely nothing special, which is a shame for a film that had some potential otherwise. I would love to see him work with a more interesting cinematographer and see what would happen, but Rodrigo Prieto is frankly uninteresting. The genius of Conrad Hall made Sam Mendes look like an interesting director for nearly a decade. I’m not sure there is another genius like him around, but what about Peter Deming or Robert Richardson? Just somebody who’s done something interesting before might be enough to take him from “passable” to “good.”

There isn’t much anyone could do acting-wise throughout the film, so no one stood out in a good or bad way.

Overall, it’s an okay film. It’s nothing special, but it’s certainly decent.

Originally Written and Posted on Facebook October 12, 2012. Slightly edited.

A small update since this film has now won three Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture prize. That award doesn’t mean this film is any better than I thought it was from the beginning, but its win brings up the question of why such an average film would win the prestigious award. The answer is that, while this is a clearly political film, it’s also a film that praises the film industry. The entire movie-within-a-movie subplot, which pulls back from skewering Hollywood in any meaningful way, conveys the message that films have a power to help solve the world’s political problems (a message that could easily be seen as self-congratulatory, given the film’s obvious political goals). It’s not exactly the same message as The Artist (Michael Hazanavicious, France/Belgium/USA 2011) used to take home the award last year, but the spirit is very much the same, and it’s a spirit that wins this award with some regularity.