The Monuments Men (2014)

the monuments menReleased: February 7, 2014. Directed by: George Clooney. Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray. Runtime: 118 min.

“The Monuments Men” follows a platoon of unlikely heroes at the end of the Second World War who are tasked with retrieving art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their rightful owners. It’s a story about not letting culture die, because if all of this art is to be destroyed, that’s one less piece of history to state that the culture that made it existed.

I think this raises cool cultural ideas because history is an interesting thing, especially seeing and knowing how a culture evolves over time. I’m sure that’s what inspired the real life characters to be a part of this platoon. It’s an educational feature because I hadn’t realized that the Nazi’s stole so much art. The lengths these generically developed characters went through to try to get the art back makes for an okay film.

It’s billed as an action-drama but there’s a limited amount of action throughout, and only a few brief exchanges of artillery, which I find to be a defining trait for any war film. Since that is the case, any action fans out there who are looking for a good war movie with lots of action should seek entertainment elsewhere with the gritty “Lone Survivor.” That one at least has good characters, too. The drama’s okay when it’s happening, but there’s a lot of comedy so its sometimes goofy tone and sometimes serious tone is what makes this have a poor tonal balance.

Director George Clooney is just too eager to please with this one, because he adds so much funny banter it makes many scenes feel quite goofy. I’m one for comic relief in dramas, but the comedy takes too much precedence here for a film billed as a wartime drama, and there are even a few scenes that don’t complement the story, and could just be seen as mere opportunities for the actors to remind us that they can be funny every once in awhile. The scenes are funny, but it leaves me thinking “Well, it might have been funny, but how pointless was that?” There is also one scene that’s pointless, but not that funny, it just feels hollow. Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who seems to be Viktor Stahl’s secretary. Stahl is one of the Nazis responsible for hiding the art, and when Claire spots him moving the art to another location via a train, she says “I see you Stahl!” He looks at her, hops on the train and starts shooting at her as it’s going along. Well, he’s not going to hit her at the distance they are from each other; so is he trying to be menacing, or is he just trying to lighten his gun for no apparent reason?

At least the humour hits when it isn’t too predictable, and they have to spice up a plot so simplistic somehow, if there’s not much action going on and if the characters aren’t the best overall. It’s difficult to remember what exactly their role is within the platoon, but they are introduced at the beginning of the film at their work – in one of those early-on recruiting sequences. Clooney is simply the leader of the platoon, the Lieutenant. Hugh Bonneville portrays a man named Donald Jeffries, who gets the most character development as a recovering alcoholic. Matt Damon portrays a painter who is best characterized as a man who cannot speak French to save his life, as the French person he speaks to tells him to speak in English after two sentences.

As previously mentioned, Cate Blanchett’s Claire is Stahl’s secretary, and also a valuable intelligence source. Bill Murray portrays an architect but really only gets depicted as a guy who likes to tease Bob Balaban, who looked like he was directing a stage play in his recruiting scene where George Clooney just sits behind him smiling. John Goodman portrays Walter Garfield, a sculptor who might as well just be the Funny Guy. Jean Dujardin plays a character I’d just refer to as The Guy Who Can Actually Speak French. The cast does their best because they all do get a few laughs in, and it’s quite an ensemble; but when their characters are generic like this, it’s hard not to think that a certain few (Clooney and Damon in particular) are surprisingly phoning in their performances.

To me, this feels like a film with a clear A to B plot. Only a few surprises, a few brief action scenes, but enough humour to keep viewers mildly entertained throughout. The tonal choice to be serious at times, and often too goofy, is fatal. I don’t know if Clooney intended to make this part caper part wartime drama feel as goofy with its humour as “National Treasure” (a fun movie) at times, but that’s the result. Compared to his [Clooney’s] other works as a director, this is disappointingly sub-par.

Score55/100

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Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone SurvivorReleased: January 10, 2014. Directed by: Peter Berg. Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster. Runtime: 121 min.

“Lone Survivor” is a war film that truly expresses how far one will go to survive in a life-threatening situation. It’s like that example commonly used where if a parent sees their child in danger, their protective instincts are going to take over, and if the act requires extraordinary strength, they’ll probably get the necessary adrenaline rush to do so. Sometimes the adrenaline rush doesn’t always help, but it helps give people hope for that situation. This film depicts the courage and survival instincts of the men of Operation Red Wing, a US Marines operation to capture and kill a notorious al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd, who had killed twenty U.S. marines weeks prior. The operation takes place in June 2005 in Afghanistan.

The group of marines who take part in the operation are Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster) and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) who go at it alone in stage one in the operation, to recon the area where Shahd is suspected of staying. Their knowledge is that the village has a small group of ten men, but what is really in the Taliban village is a small army. That isn’t the only thing to go wrong on the mission primarily, their position is surrendered when a group of goat herders stumble upon them. The moral dilemma of whether or not to kill them (two are kids) puts them a situation that will put all of their lives at stake.

It’s curious that it’s such a moral dilemma for them, whether or not to kill the two kids and old man who stumble upon them. The Marines didn’t want to commit a war crime, but it sparks a heated debate within the four men about what they should do about the situation. But they are Taliban, and the younger men are trained soldiers practically. One of them is a kid, but one seriously hard-looking one looks about 21 years old, no younger than one Petty officer on the operation. Anyway, at least these soldiers do have morals. I guess they wouldn’t clear their military psychology test if they were unstable in that way.

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They do have to do what’s right for their country, and patriotism is a main theme of the film. It’s a rousing film about men fighting for their country, and that’s why I like war films; and the action make them pretty great, too, of course. It’s cool when they have attempts at humour, as well. This film has a few of them, notably during a scene where it shows how Petty officers gains respect from their higher authorities in the Marine corps. There’s a speech that is given by Alexander Ludwig (portraying Shane Patton, he’s a bit better than he was in “The Hunger Games”) where he tells them why he’s going to be a good Navy SEAL diver. Some of it’s good, some of it’s odd. I like the performances by the main four soldiers on this mission.

They’re all talented actors, really. Kitsch’s character is a big shot because he is a lietuenant; he’s good in my book because he likes “Anchorman”, too. Hirsch is particularly good in one scene, and generally good. I really like Ben Foster as an actor, and he might have one of the best lines in the film as far as I’m concerned. Mark Wahlberg just keeps getting better and better, too; I don’t mean to bore you readers with somewhat generic comments on main performances, but I like to give credit where it’s due. The courage these men they are portraying is so admirable, because they just keep fighting. I’m sure that’s why these talented actors were attracted to the roles.

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That’s probably why so many were attracted to see the film. There’s a lot to like about it, but there’s also some stuff wrong with it. I’d have appreciated a different title so it would allow more suspense to take place. It’s still an effective and emotionally impactful film, regardless. It could have been called “Military Communication Devices Suck,” because they couldn’t call in their position to the base half the time, or even “Operation Red Wing” could have been an effective title.

Anyway, Peter Berg directs the film well, but I don’t like some of his creative choices. He uses slow motion way too much for my liking. He’s unrelenting with it, really. Some scenes are improved with it, for example when the soldiers fall down hills, he uses slo-mo at the beginning of it so it’s an interesting shot. Its effectiveness is hit and miss. There’s an archive footage sequence during the opening credits depicting cadets training to be a marine; it’s cool, but it’s not clear if it’s footage of the soldiers participating in the operation depicted of the film. There’s also a funny thing about this film; some films might start with a scene taken from the middle, but this one starts with a scene taken from part of the end! It’s a silly decision because this surrenders some suspense from the film, as well, but the third act is still stellar.

One more creative decision I wasn’t fond of: During a scene shared between Luttrell (Wahlberg) and Axelson (Foster), Axelson is asking Luttrell for a favour that is quite touching and one of my favourite parts of the film, and just before I can decide “Hey, is this worth a tear?” Berg interrupts it with a loud explosion! Come on, man! For action fans they might appreciate that the drama gets cut short, but it’s so sloppy to me because it was a great scene. It does depict the harsh reality of war and the suddenness of such violence, and how quickly these soldiers have to react to enemy fire. It’s realistic, but sloppy.

There are some surprises with the film, especially how gritty it is. The blood and battle wounds that cover these soldiers is really just heartbreaking. Even though this film is flawed, I think it deserves a re-watch for the great action sequences. One more thing: The sound effects of this war film are truly spectacular, there are explosions and gunfire going off every which way – and it feels like you’re really in the film with the soldiers.

Score75/100

January 31 to February 2 Box Office Predictions

The two films being released the last weekend of January is “Labor Day” and “That Awkward Moment.”

The idea of a film called Labor Day being released in January is a bit of a funny idea. At 2584 theatres, this is the widest initial release for any Jason Reitman film yet. Similar films debut at $9.7 million. I doubt this film will hit double digits this weekend – I saw it yesterday, and I wasn’t a big fan of it. My review will be posted late Friday or Saturday. This is starting the February romantic craze two weeks early before Valentine’s Day, but I wonder how many are in the romantic mood. Anyway, my prediction for this is $7.7 million.

But if people are in the romantic mood, I think “That Awkward Moment” might be a better date night choice. It looks funny and it’s about relationships where people are in that state where they ask “Where’s this going?” It seems like one of those “The do’s and do not’s of dating” sort-of flicks. I’m sold on the cast, practically, well three out of four of them – I like Efron, and Michael B. Jordan especially – I still have to see him in “Fruitvale Station”, though – and Imogen Poots is good, she’s one of the only things I liked about “All is By My Side.” I’m undecided about Miles Teller, but I’ve only seen him in “Project X” and “21 & Over,” and since I hated both of those – I’ve only seen Teller work with shitty material. I might have to wait to see “The Spectacular Now” to form a stronger opinion about him. Anyway, films similar to this open at $13.7 million. What I’m curious about is, will this open closer to “21 and Over’s” $8.7 million, or “Project X’s” $21 million? Since it has Zac Efron, I think it’ll open to $18.3 million.

As for as the first holdover for “I Frankenstein,” I think it’s likely it’ll drop at least 50%, probably more like 57% since when it grosses such a low number – at $8.6 million – it usually just shuffles out of theatres. It seems to me that it will be in its second-rate theatre run by February 7th, depending on how it does this weekend. But if you want to see it in theatres, I’d get on it!

Here’s how I see the Top 10:

1. “That Awkward Moment”: $17.3 million
2. “Ride Along”: $13.4 million
3. “The Nut Job”: $8.3
4. “Lone Survivor”: $8.2 million
5. “Labor Day”: $7.7 million
6. “Frozen“: $7.3 million
7. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”: $6.3 million
8. “American Hustle“: $5.3 million
9. “I, Frankenstein”: $4.9 million
10. “The Wolf of Wall Street“: $4.5 million