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Review: The Monuments Men

Feb. 6, 2014by: Chris Bumbray

PLOT: At the height of the Second World War, an Allied unit composed of museum directors, art historians, and curators is sent behind enemy lines to recover priceless works of art, stolen by the Nazis, and destined for Germany. As the war starts to wind down, their mission becomes even more urgent, with Adolf Hitler imposing the Nero decree which orders the destruction of all art seized by the Nazis before it can be reclaimed by its rightful owners.

REVIEW: Despite the hundreds- thousands even- of movies made about the Second World War, there are seemingly unlimited amounts of untold stories that in the right hands could be turned into white knuckle, educational and inspiring entertainment. THE MONUMENTS MEN highlights the efforts of a real group, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, that really was composed of the types of men depicted here, who risked- and occasionally gave- their lives to preserve the cultural heritage of all the lands plundered by the Nazis.

While this is the first film to deal specifically with the Monuments Men, in 1965, director John Frankenheimer made one of the great war-action movies on the same subject, THE TRAIN, which starred Burt Lancaster as a French Resistance member trying to prevent the Nazis from fleeing France with priceless artwork. Clooney's gone of record saying that film was a major influence on THE MONUMENTS MEN, to the extent that the real-life counterpart to Cate Blanchett's character actually wrote the book THE TRAIN was loosely based on.

The only way THE MONUMENTS MEN really suffers is in direct comparison to THE TRAIN, which is a masterpiece and gives the story a personal resonance and urgency this film lacks. Otherwise, this distinguishes itself as a unique, entertaining war film that's inexplicably being given a hard time by the critics, seemingly only due to the fact that it's not the opus people seemed to be expecting from Clooney. Sure, it won't win any Oscars, but that doesn't seem to be the goal here. Rather, this is more in line with Clooney's OCEAN'S movies, and save for the occasional moment of gravitas the tone remains light. In some ways it feels like a lost war caper from the fifties, the kind where instead of George Clooney and Matt Damon, you might have gotten Cary Grant or William Holden- right down to the jaunty musical score by Alexandre Desplat, in the style of Elmer Bernstein circa THE GREAT ESCAPE.

In that sense, MONUMENTS MEN feels almost retro, with a non-cynical patriotic tone, thoroughly despicable Nazi villains, and a bunch of likable character actors, all of whom give it their all. It's not a complex movie, nor is it trying to be. Clooney, in addition to co-writing and directing, plays the marginal lead, George L. Stout, one of the few characters that doesn't seem to be fictionalized. Looking sharp with his Errol Flynn/Clark Gable-style moustache, Clooney plays the part like Danny Ocean in uniform, and one can't say it doesn't play to his strengths. Matt Damon- who's always been part of Clooney's core ensemble- probably has the biggest part as a historian sent into occupied France on the basis that he's fluent in French, which winds up being one of the funniest jokes in the movie as he learned it in Montreal with his broken, Anglo-Quebec way of speaking the language not going over too well with La Resistance (having seen the film in Montreal, I can tell you this got a HUGE laugh). Much of the film is devoted to his relationship with Blanchett, as a Frenchwoman coerced into helping catalogue the Nazi inventory of art stolen from France's Jewish population, and devoted to righting this wrong. As always, Blanchett thoroughly disappears into the part.

Most of the real humor comes from Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, who are made unlikely partners, although Murray has one of the most affecting moments in the film where he breaks down into tears after hearing a phonograph Christmas greeting recorded by his grandchildren. John Goodman, and Jean Dujardin are another unlikely pair, with Dujardin- especially- playing the type of Hollywood Frenchman (constantly smoking, smiling and/or wearing a beret) a guy like Charles Boyer played in the era this movie is set in, but it suits the tone of the film. Of the cast, Hugh Bonneville from DOWNTON ABBEY gets to tug at the heartstrings the most, as a disgraced aristocrat (not unlike Lord Grantham) trying to redeem himself on the battlefield.

Of course, THE MONUMENTS MEN is a far cry from the serious type of WW2 movie that wins Oscars, and it's no wonder Clooney moved it out of the Awards season, as it's simply not that kind of movie- outside of a few somber moments that acknowledge the horror of war, such as a disturbing scene where the team finds a barrel-full of thousands of gold teeth. The thing is, THE MONUMENTS MEN is not trying to be a war epic, and for that Clooney's being criticized, which is odd. This is a deliberately old-fashioned WW2 adventure that shines a light on a little known chapter of the war, and while it's short on war movie action, it never ceases to entertain. If you keep your expectations in check, you should have a great time.

Source: JoBlo.com

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7:01PM on 02/23/2014

WHERE ARE YOU GETTING YOUR FACTS?

I didn't like the movie (but didn't hate it) because it's so uneven in tone. Then I read most critics thought the same. So where did you hear that Clooney got critized for not making a war epic? Also, they moved the release date because some FX weren't ready and Clooney asked the studio for more time.
I didn't like the movie (but didn't hate it) because it's so uneven in tone. Then I read most critics thought the same. So where did you hear that Clooney got critized for not making a war epic? Also, they moved the release date because some FX weren't ready and Clooney asked the studio for more time.
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1:40PM on 02/13/2014

Hated it.

This film didn't do anything for me. I think Clooney failed miserably in making a really boring film with some terrible writing and direction.
This film didn't do anything for me. I think Clooney failed miserably in making a really boring film with some terrible writing and direction.
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2:36PM on 02/06/2014

Really?

I'm bummed about an 8/10? What's wrong with me?
I'm bummed about an 8/10? What's wrong with me?
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+5
10:28AM on 02/06/2014
Saw this last night, while it was good, it felt like Clooney was trying to make a movie more in the vein of Kelly's Heroes but he doesn't hit that mark. I think there could have been a little better movie in here if it were put in another director's hands (like Soderbergh, for example) instead of Clooney's. If anything, it got me wanting to read the book. 7/10
Saw this last night, while it was good, it felt like Clooney was trying to make a movie more in the vein of Kelly's Heroes but he doesn't hit that mark. I think there could have been a little better movie in here if it were put in another director's hands (like Soderbergh, for example) instead of Clooney's. If anything, it got me wanting to read the book. 7/10
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10:27AM on 02/06/2014
I want this to be a good movie, but it has a 31% on rotten tomatoes. I have a strong feeling that it's going to disappoint.
I want this to be a good movie, but it has a 31% on rotten tomatoes. I have a strong feeling that it's going to disappoint.
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7:14AM on 02/06/2014
Sounds promising. I'm always up for a movie that isn't like every other movie, so that this ISN'T a grim war epic sits well with me. Even if it was terrible, I'd see it for the always-perfect Blanchett.
Sounds promising. I'm always up for a movie that isn't like every other movie, so that this ISN'T a grim war epic sits well with me. Even if it was terrible, I'd see it for the always-perfect Blanchett.
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5:15AM on 02/06/2014
Glad to read the positive review. Film looks very well put together and the cast looks picture perfect in their roles. Can't wait to check it out this weekend.
Glad to read the positive review. Film looks very well put together and the cast looks picture perfect in their roles. Can't wait to check it out this weekend.
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4:54AM on 02/06/2014
This sounds like Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone all rolled into one great movie.
This sounds like Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone all rolled into one great movie.
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9:05AM on 02/06/2014
Not on that level at all. Those are two amazing movies. This is much, much lighter. If you expect something on par with that you'll be disappointed.
Not on that level at all. Those are two amazing movies. This is much, much lighter. If you expect something on par with that you'll be disappointed.
9:14AM on 02/06/2014
Oh, I see. Thanks, Chris. What I meant was it's a group of special people on Special Mission movie like Dirty Dozen meets The Guns of Navarone although not on epic scale like both films.
Oh, I see. Thanks, Chris. What I meant was it's a group of special people on Special Mission movie like Dirty Dozen meets The Guns of Navarone although not on epic scale like both films.
2:37AM on 02/06/2014
It's a shame this got delayed and wasn't able to compete at the Oscars. Bumbray, do you think it would've been a worthy contender? Could Clooney have been nominated for Best Director?
It's a shame this got delayed and wasn't able to compete at the Oscars. Bumbray, do you think it would've been a worthy contender? Could Clooney have been nominated for Best Director?
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2:43AM on 02/06/2014
Did you not read the review? He stated this is not the kind of film that will win awards and Clooney was smart to push it out of awards season.
Did you not read the review? He stated this is not the kind of film that will win awards and Clooney was smart to push it out of awards season.
3:03AM on 02/06/2014
From what I've seen of this, it kind of reminds me of Argo, which did have its lighthearted moments and became a major awards favourite anyway. I'm curious as to whether or not Clooney handled the film well enough from a directing stand point and I think it's refreshing to see a "based on a true story" wartime film that takes a slightly less serious angle.
From what I've seen of this, it kind of reminds me of Argo, which did have its lighthearted moments and became a major awards favourite anyway. I'm curious as to whether or not Clooney handled the film well enough from a directing stand point and I think it's refreshing to see a "based on a true story" wartime film that takes a slightly less serious angle.
9:06AM on 02/06/2014
No- would not have been a contender.
No- would not have been a contender.
10:05AM on 02/06/2014
Thanks Bumbray. I think I agree with kivzirrum, that it is nice to see a war film that, while respectful of the era and subject matter, is not a harrowing, emotionally exhausting watch.
Thanks Bumbray. I think I agree with kivzirrum, that it is nice to see a war film that, while respectful of the era and subject matter, is not a harrowing, emotionally exhausting watch.
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