Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mississippi Burning (1988)

Director: Alan Parker                                  Writer: Chris Gerolmo
Film Score: Trevor Jones                           Cinematography: Peter Biziou
Starring: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand & Brad Dourif

Mississippi Burning can be a difficult film to judge, as there are a couple of distinct ways of looking at it. On the one hand it is a powerful historical drama in which the national legal establishment finally takes matters into their own hands to aid in the process of changing the segregated South by resorting to the very measures employed by the Klan and other hate groups. The result is a revenge film in which racist whites get what’s coming to them and go to jail. But my favorite film analyst, Frederick Barton, takes a very different view of the film. To him the film is a travesty that besmirches the memory of the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi at the hands of local law enforcement. By resorting to the same fear tactics as the Klan, the FBI agents lower themselves and eliminate the moral authority they had going in. Furthermore, he believes that by making the audience unwitting accomplices in the lust for revenge, it brings out and celebrates our baser natures at the expense of our American virtues. Finally, the pathetic jail sentences--mostly under ten years for murder--were not worth the degradation the protagonists voluntarily assumed and is a further slap in the face to the entire civil rights movement. The review is contained in his novel With Extreme Prejudice, and is well worth seeking out.

The film begins with stark images of racial segregation, separate water fountains and a burning church. Three civil rights workers, two white and one black, are stopped while driving down the road in Mississippi in 1964. Then they are taken into the woods and shot. A few days later Northern FBI agent Willem Dafoe, and his good ole boy partner Gene Hackman who is from Mississippi, look into the disappearance of the men and are met with nothing but denials and resistance from the townspeople and the police, beginning with sheriff Gailard Sartain and his deputy Brad Dourif. While Dafoe charges headlong into the investigation Hackman urges caution, and his warning is not unwarranted. When Dafoe begins questioning blacks their churches are burned, and when he continues their houses are burned. Redneck Michael Rooker is the worst of the bunch, but the town leaders like mayor R. Lee Emery and head Klansman Stephen Tobolowsky are able to use him and his friends to do their dirty work. While Dafoe refuses to see his responsibility for the scorched earth behind him, Hackman sees another way in.

Dourif is married to Frances McDormand and she clearly doesn’t like her husband very much. Hackman uses his Southern charm and appeals not only to her vanity but to her sense of right and wrong and eventually gets vital information that they need to not only find the murdered men, but to identify the whites responsible for the murders. As Barton points out, the opening section with Dafoe and Hackman begins with a joke, and the four eyes that can’t see in Mississippi are really those of glasses-wearing Dafoe whose investigational techniques are a disaster in a part of the country he knows nothing about. Hackman’s guidance, at first from afar, distancing himself from Dafoe, eventually becomes necessary in the same way that Sean Connery mentors Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. And when Dafoe finally relents, in a sense telling Hackman to do it his way, for Barton the film loses all credibility. Sure, it feels good to see the rednecks get some of their own medicine, but the system is rigged in their favor so that even after a trial their punishment comes nowhere close to justice for the despicable acts they perpetrated on the helpless victims of their systematic disenfranchisement.

Nevertheless, the film remains a powerful one, and the visceral nature of the retribution remains no less desirable for our guilt at desiring it. For me, however, the true nature of the film falls somewhere in between the two extremes. The meager prison sentences that the killers are given is indicative of the tremendous journey still left to travel, even today, in dealing with this dark legacy. Gene Hackman gives one of his finest performances as an FBI agent who at first seems sympathetic with his Southern past, but is eventually revealed to be more disgusted with his heritage than those from the North who have vowed to fight it. Willem Dafoe is great in support, but Barton’s thesis really hits home when he’s able to overcome his own revulsion at Hackman’s tactics and starts digging the results. Frances McDormand gives a terrific performance in an early role, and one of her non-Coen Brothers films. Brad Dourif, on the other hand, shows yet again why it was such a tragedy that his career never lived up to its early promise. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards that year but only won for best cinematography, as Rain Man came away the big winner. While Mississippi Burning is a moderately controversial film it is still a popular one with viewers, but will depend on the individual viewer as to how they take it.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Outcast (1937)

Director: Robert Florey                              Writers: Doris Malloy & Dore Schary
Film Score: Ernst Toch                              Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Starring: Warren William, Karen Morley, Lewis Stone and John Wray

This potboiler from independent Major Pictures was one of several released through Paramount in the mid-thirties. Warren William, who had been a huge star during the pre-code era, was still a major star but that star was on the wane and this was his first appearance in an independent film. While past his prime, he still manages to look dignified among a decidedly second-rate cast and puts in a solid performance as a wrongly-accused man. Outcast was the fourth film starring William that was helmed by Robert Florey, a confident director with an interesting visual style who worked in a number of genres during the golden age and had a lengthy career in television afterward. Most notable for being the man who almost directed Frankenstein, his most well-known film is probably the quirky but effective Murders in the Rue Morgue for Universal, Bela Lugosi’s follow up of Dracula the year before. The screenplay, co-written by future MGM head Dore Schary, was based on the novel Happiness Preferred by Frank R. Adams, but fails to rise above its low-budget beginnings. And aside from an opening and closing theme by Ernst Toch, there is very little film score to speak of.

The film begins as a tale of revenge. Warren William, on trial for murder, is acquitted because the jury decided that the poisoning was an accidental overdose of medication that William had prescribed, not premeditated poisoning by the accused. But the wealthy Murray Kinnell, the husband who had his wife stolen away from him by William before her death, has decided to make it his life’s work to punish William by destroying his life and making him an outcast. He begins by having him blackballed in every hospital in the country and in desperation William pawns his medical bag and heads West until the money runs out. In a small town called Orchard Fork, he meets retired lawyer Lewis Stone who guesses he’s a doctor when he splints Christian Rubb’s broken arm. He recognizes William’s name from the papers, and since the town has no doctor he decides to take a chance on him and hires him to stay and practice medicine. But when Kinnell becomes gravely ill and can’t be disturbed, his sister Karen Morley decides to take up his cause and heads to Orchard Fork in order to expose to the town who William is and what he was accused of.

The film is based on an interesting enough idea, but the execution is poor. The script has absolutely no suspense, and doesn’t really have a conflict of any kind. While Karen Morley comes to town hopping mad, it’s just as clear that after she gets to know the good doctor that all her animosity will melt away and she’ll just as easily melt into his arms. Meanwhile the supporting cast is a little to overly cute and predictable themselves, the movie version of a Norman Rockwell painting but far more pedestrian than the cast of Our Town would be a few years later. Esther Dale is so over the top in her meanness toward everybody that she almost gets what she deserves when tragedy ensues toward the end of the film. Lewis Stone is solid as ever but, like everyone in the cast, is hampered by the weak script. Karen Morley does well in her scenes, but this is obviously a B production. Still, the ending is interesting, if derivative of any number of similar films, most notably Fritz Lang’s Fury from the previous year. Outcast is certainly recommended for fans of Warren William, if you can find it, but will no doubt fail to engage most classic movie lovers.

The Interpreter (2005)

Director: Sidney Pollack                               Writers: Charles Randolph & Scott Frank
Film Score: James Newton Howard             Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Katherine Keener and Clyde Kusatsu

The Interpreter is a decidedly interesting, if less than gripping, thriller from Sidney Pollack. This was the director’s last film as a director--though he did appear later as an actor in George Clooney’s Michael Clayton--and it’s a solid finish for him. He has some terrific actors at his disposal and a timely political story to tell. Nevertheless, reviews were mixed and the film was not a hit. The problem is probably due to the expectation of viewers and reviewers. Though it is a political thriller, there’s not a whole lot of action in the film. It’s more of a meditation on death and revenge, with both Kidman and Penn’s characters suffering loss that keeps them sympathetic toward each other even as Penn’s investigation threatens to completely alienate them. The screenplay is based on an original story by Martin Stellman and Brian Ward, and a good part of it is set in the United Nations building itself. Though Pollack was initially denied access to the U.N. building, he eventually made a personal appeal to then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who recognized the significance of the story and allowed his production team access to the general assembly hall as well as other portions of the building in which to shoot.

The film begins in Africa with three unknown men going to a secret meeting. The driver is Curtiss Cook, a rebel leader in the African country of Matobo. He is on his way to look at the bodies of executed rebels ordered killed by the country’s leader, Earl Cameron. Along with him are Afrikaner and fellow rebel Hugo Speer and French photographer Yvan Attal. They are there to gather evidence against Cameron in order to oust him as president and stop the mass murders he has perpetrated. Cook and Speer go into the derelict soccer stadium and three young boys lead them to the bodies. But when they come out the two are executed by the boys. Attal, still out in the Jeep, manages to escape. Meanwhile, United Nations interpreter Nicole Kidman has her day interrupted when it is learned that one of the metal detectors has been malfunctioning and the building must be swept by hand. At the end of the day she goes back to her sound booth to collect her personal effects when she overhears whispering on the assembly floor and believes it to be a death threat. But it’s not until the next day, when representatives of Cameron come to the U.N. and she is called on to interpret for them, that she believes the threat is against Cameron himself.

Sean Penn and his partner, Katherine Keener, are secret service agents called in to provide protection. During Penn’s interview with Kidman he rubs her the wrong way and she doubts his ability to protect her. Only then does he reveal that he isn’t there to protect her, but Earl Cameron when he comes to give a speech at the U.N. in order to avoid prosecution for war crimes. In fact, Penn actually believes she might be making the whole thing up. Though she isn’t, there are definitely things that she’s not telling Penn, which makes him suspicious. And the more he uncovers about her past, the more he suspects that she might not be the perpetrator of a hoax but part of an organized effort to kill Cameron when he comes to New York. In the course of the investigation it is not only revealed that Penn’s character has lost his wife in a car accident, but that Kidman has lost her entire family to Cameron’s death squads. Pollack plays the head of the Secret Service and Penn’s boss, who also must coordinate his agent’s activities with the chief of the New York police department, the great Clyde Kusatsu in a long overdue serious role. Other notable faces are secret service agents Robert Clohessy and David Fonteno, and Adrian Martinez as the sound engineer at the U.N.

Nicole Kidman does a terrific job not only with the part itself and playing the woman in peril, but also seems very convincing with the South African dialect. While Sean Penn can be an inconsistent commodity in terms of his performances on film, he is suitably subdued as the agent in mourning who prefers work to sitting around thinking about his late wife. Katherine Keener is terrific as Penn’s no-nonsense partner, but her part is too small to really become invested in. And George Harris has a nice turn as a rebel leader in exile, living in New York City and ready to take over should Cameron be convicted by an international court for crimes against humanity. The political hook at the time was the parallel between the fictional country of Matobo and the real country of Zimbabwe, as well as the similarity between the movie’s Earl Cameron and the real African dictator Robert Mugabe who had been criticized for ethnic cleansing in his country and reprisals against white Afrikaners still living there. The film does boast some very nice plot twists and a couple of real surprises that hold interest. The manufactured sexual tension between Kidman and Penn is far less believable or interesting. Still, The Interpreter is a credible thriller and a well-directed film by the late Sidney Pollack.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Bible: In the Beginning (1966)

Director: John Huston                                   Writers: Christopher Fry & Orson Welles
Film Score: Toshirô Mayuzumi                     Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Ava Gardner and John Huston

As Biblical epics go, this is not one of the more exciting. John Huston’s take on early stories from the book of Genesis suffers from the attempt at literal translation rather than a more creative approach to the tales. At the same time, the familiar fifties style production quality is abandoned in favor of a mid-sixties approach that now seems hopelessly dated. Still, there is a likable quality to the film that manages to maintain minimal interest throughout. The Bible: In the Beginning was an American and Italian co-production headed by Dino De Laurentiis, and was intended by the producer to be the first in a series of films that would work their way through the Bible, but clearly the vision that Houston offered was not one that audiences were keen to return to. The film boasted a number of firsts, however. It featured one of the largest interior sets of the time, the inside of Noah’s ark, which was a hundred and fifty feet long and over fifty feet high, with three decks and pens for the animals. The exteriors were filmed in Rome, Sicily, Sardinia and Northern Egypt. It was also the first studio feature film to contain full-frontal nudity, though these scenes with Adam and Eve were obscured enough that it’s difficult to make the case for that today.

The film begins with Huston as the voice of God, reading the first chapter of the book of Genesis. The visuals are a bit murky at first, but when sky and water and earth are created there is some terrific nature photography--for the time--that goes along with the narration. Adam and Eve are portrayed by Michael Parks and Ulla Bergryd, as stereotypical blond, Arian progenitors of all life on Earth. The Garden of Eden is not quite as lush as one would imagine, and the tree of knowledge is also underwhelming, but the actors do what they can. They eat from the tree and are cast out of Eden, producing Cain and Abel. Richard Harris plays Cain, who killed his brother, and goes through some rather bizarre choreography before being branded by God and cast out himself to roam the earth as the first homeless person. How Adam and Eve people the earth with their own children is glossed over to get to the story of Noah and the Ark. Adam’s race has become vicious, human sacrifice is common place, and in an amusing scene John Huston as God tells himself, John Huston as Noah, to build the ark. What’s fascinating is that the sequence about Noah is performed tongue in cheek by Huston and as a result it’s the most charming part of the entire film.

After the intermission Nimrod, played by Stephen Boyd, builds the Tower of Babel and as a result of God’s anger he gives different languages to the people of Earth so that they cannot understand each other. From there the story moves on to Abraham, played by George C. Scott, and his wife Sarah, played by Ava Gardner. Though the land of Cannan is promised by God to Abraham’s descendants, Abraham is mystified as he and his wife have no children. But God gives a command to Abraham to sacrifice and though he impregnated Hagar, played by Zoe Sallis, she was sent away by Sarah though she bears him a son named Ishmael. As time goes on, however, Peter O’Toole comes in the form of three separate angels all bearing his likeness and when he blesses Sarah she becomes pregnant in her old age and Isaac is born. Though it’s incongruous to see George C. Scott as a Biblical hero, he gives a credible portrayal of the Jewish patriarch, especially in his later years. Ava Gardner gives a subdued performance as Sarah, and Peter O’Toole is equally stoic. It’s interesting to see these performers taking their roles so seriously that they almost constrict themselves in their desire to be reverential, but one wishes that they could have taken the more whimsical approach that the director allowed himself.

The climax of the piece is when George C. Scott is called on by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, played by Alberto Lucantoni. Scott is able to generate some real anger toward the incomprehensible divine being, as only Scott can. But it’s really too little, too late. Just when the picture is actually picking up some steam, it ends. By far the biggest flaw in the film is the approach to the screenplay by Christopher Fry, with some uncredited help by Orson Welles. The only dialogue that Houston allows is that contained in the Bible itself, which is very minimal. Other than that, the performers are limited to actions alone, which doesn’t make for great cinema. Houston’s original plan called for the great Igor Stravinsky to compose the film score, but that never came to fruition. Nevertheless, what today seems a merely serviceable score by Japanese composer Toshirô Mayuzumi was the only Academy Award nomination the film received. In the end, one thing is clear, unlike most directors who would have balked at taking on the Bible, on can see Houston almost relishing the task. But despite an entertaining section containing the director himself, The Bible: In the Beginning is little more than a bloated, uninspiring version of an overly familiar tale in desperate need of inspiration rather than reverence.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Selfless (2008)

Director: Jacob Pander                                  Writers: Jacob & Arnold Pander
Film Score: Auditory Sculpture                      Cinematography: Kevin Fletcher
Starring: Josh Rengert, Mo Gallini, October Moore and Jennifer Hong

The Pander Brother’s film Selfless has taken a real beating online, receiving a meager four out of ten on IMDb, and a dismal zero percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But that’s a shame. Despite this being a first feature--with all the attendant problems that usually incurs--it is undeniably a visually stunning film. This should not be a surprise, however. The brothers hail from Portland and have been graphic artists involved in creating cutting-edge comic books since they were in their teens. They are among a number of young filmmakers plying their trade in the Rose City, creating music videos for the thriving music community as well as collaborating with Portland luminary Gus Van Sant. The film deals with the recent phenomenon of identity theft and takes that idea to the extreme. Josh Rengert is an architect who has it all, a great girlfriend, a model apartment, and a job working for a firm that’s about to close a major deal designing a new skyscraper in Seattle. The film opens in in the airport in Portland, with the credits rolling over people going through security and having to reassemble themselves, belts, shoes, and suitcases, before heading to the gates across the iconic PDX carpet.

As Rengert is waiting for his flight to Seattle, he pulls out his sketchpad and begins drawing stewardess Jennifer Hong. A few minutes later Mo Gallini sets down next to him, irate over being fired while on his cell phone, and Rengert wastes no time in moving to another set of seats. When Hong strikes up a conversation with him and sees his drawing of her, she asks him to sketch someone else. The angry Gallini is still on the phone fuming, and so Rengert begins a quick caricature of him but is caught in the act. Gallini abuses him verbally, and there is a definitely the threat of physical violence before everyone goes their separate ways. What Rengert doesn’t see, however, is Gallini picking up his architectural magazine and getting his name and address off the subscription label. A few days later back at home, Rengert’s girlfriend October Moore has purchased a couch and Rengert’s controlling personality comes out as he wants her to take it back. It turns out he’s the same way with his partners. While the investors want him to make some modifications to the building design, Rengert absolutely refuses. But because of all this Rengert loses sight of the campaign being waged against him. Not only has he been tricked into giving up his social security number to a phony bank alert, but he suddenly discovers that Jennifer Hong is his downstairs neighbor.

As with so many first features, the Pander’s screenplay is easily the weakest part of the film. As supremely confident as the brothers are with their visuals style, their ability to render believable characters is very much the opposite. Even so, the acting in the film is solid despite the script. Josh Rengert does a good job in the lead role. One particularly nice moment is when he has lost everything and freaks out in his car. Pander pulls back his camera and the audience can literally see the car shaking. October Moore as the girlfriend is feeling the need to start a family, which Rengert balks at, being too wrapped up in his work. This drives a wedge between the couple that keeps her from supporting him later in the film. The real star of the film, however, is Jennifer Hong in a double role as the stewardess and her twin sister who has been smuggled into the country, forcing the stewardess to act as a drug mule to pay off her debt in return. She is an enigmatic figure in the film, and one isn’t sure whether she’s working for Gallini or not. As for Mo Gallini himself, he’s a credible villain, who would have been helped a lot if he’d been given an equally credible motive.

It’s not difficult to see why ratings for the film are so low. There’s a great deal of incoherency in the plot. Aside from the lack of motive for Gallini, there is the problem of Rengert’s inability to comprehend an obvious attack on his computer. And when the viewer wants things to be ratcheted up on the identity theft, personal credit cards, utilities shut down, nothing happens until later, allowing the tension-building opportunity to slip away. The visuals, on the other hand, are stunning. Pander bathes the screen in the white glare of overcast Northwest weather, while the locations have been meticulously selected for their clean lines and uncluttered look. In one impressive sequence near the end of the film, the brothers use their graphic arts skills in a lengthy animated sequence where Rengert imagines himself walking through the building he has designed. The close ups and camera angles, as well as interesting montages, also suggest a graphic novel approach to the shooting of the film. Overall, it’s a very compelling film and, taking into account the missteps of first-time feature filmmakers, Selfless ends up being an impressive piece of work that makes one hope the Pander Brothers will be able to make more features and develop their not inconsiderable skills even further.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rear Window (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                             Writer: John Michael Hayes
Film Score: Franz Waxman                          Cinematography: Robert Burks
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelley, Wendell Corey and Thelma Ritter

As much as I love North by Northwest, if pressed, I would have to say that my favorite Hitchcock film of all time is Rear Window. Peter Bogdanovich called it the finest expression of Hitchcock’s art and I would agree. It is as close to being a perfect film as there is. The voyeuristic aspect of the story complements the director’s unique vision and the actors are as good as it gets. Both Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes were nominated for Academy Awards, but with On the Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny being nominated that year, there was no way a mere suspense film could have won. Still, it was a pretty blatant snub that the film wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and that the Thalberg award in 1968 was the closest the master of suspense ever came to winning a statuette. The film was based on the story by Cornell Woolrich called “It Had to be Murder” which had only three real characters, Jeff, confined to a wheelchair, his detective friend, and a black manservant. Hitchcock gave the story to John Michael Hayes to adapt and added the entirety of the love interest and the nurse, as well as most of the dialogue at Hitch’s suggestion.

The story begins with photographer Jimmy Stewart laid up in a wheelchair after breaking his leg while shooting a crash at an auto race. He is visited daily by insurance nurse Thelma Ritter, and his girlfriend Grace Kelley. New York City is in the middle of a heat wave and so Stewart not only can see all of his neighbors through their open windows, but can hear much of their conversations as well. Among the cast of neighbors is a bickering couple across the way, Raymond Burr and Irene Winston. Winston is bed-ridden while Burr takes care of her. One night Stewart hears an errant scream, and the next morning Winston is gone. When Stewart sees Burr taking several trips out of the apartment on a rainy night with his sample case, he gets suspicious. Meanwhile Stewart is getting pressure from Kelley to give up his nomadic lifestyle and settle down, preferably with her. But while their arguments get them nowhere, he does manage to convince her that Burr has murdered his wife, especially after Stewart is able to enlist the help of a detective friend, Wendell Corey. Though Corey initially dismisses the idea, this only inspires the couple to ever more daring attempts to prove Burr’s guilt.

One of the most impressive features of the production is the set, which required that the floor be cut out of one of Paramount’s sound stages in order to accommodate the four-story apartment buildings that faced the interior courtyard that Stewart’s rear apartment looked out on. As with earlier films like Lifeboat and his previous production, Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock thrived on the claustrophobic set, which enabled him to control every aspect of the production from the comfort of his chair on the set. The limitations that would have frustrated other directors, Hitchcock used to perfection. The Greenwich Village apartment is the lens through which the entire story is told. Stewart alternately uses binoculars and a telephoto camera lens to get a better view of the other characters and, with very few exceptions, the audience only views them from afar, from Stewart’s point of view. But Hitchcock also provides suspense by showing details to the viewer while Stewart is asleep, as well as sprinkling the film with some great comedic dialogue. One of the other interesting aspects of the film is that the soundtrack uses exclusively diegetic music, that is, only music that is created by the characters within the film, either on the piano, from the radio, or by whistling. Nevertheless, the great Franz Waxman’s opening title music scored for a jazz combo is one of his most distinctive compositions.

Jimmy Stewart is wonderful as Hitchcock’s favorite Everyman. Like the director himself, he engineers the investigation from his chair, delighted when things work out and horrified when they don’t. Grace Kelley, coming off a strong performance in Hitchcock’s previous film, has arguably her finest role here. She plays a high-fashion New York socialite who dreams of turning Stewart into a fashion and portrait photographer, but is willing to risk her life to show that she has everything it takes to exist in his world as well. Thelma Ritter and Wendell Corey perfectly complement the principals as the wise-cracking nurse and the unimaginative police detective. Though I’ve seen the film dozens of times, I was pleased to be able to attend a theatrical screening of the film as part of Turner Classic Movies’ presentation through Fathom Events. It made me realize just how much is lost by watching the film on television. The buildings loomed up from the screen and the interiors made me feel as if I was in the room with the actors. Though it’s a cliché by now, this truly is the way films were meant to be seen. Rear Window has never lost its power to both thrill and entertain, and as such it remains a testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s genius as a filmmaker.

Show People (1928)

Director: King Vidor                                      Writers: Agnes Johnston & Laurence Stallings
Film Score: William Axt                                Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Marion Davies, William Haines, Dell Henderson and Harry Gribbon

Hollywood was going through a rough transition in 1928. With the success of The Jazz Singer over at Warner Brothers solidifying the legitimacy of sound, the other studios suddenly found themselves behind the technological curve with hundreds of silent films still in the production pipeline. Nevertheless, that was also the first year of the Academy Awards and with films like William Wellman’s Wings and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise as examples of the very pinnacle of silent film art, there was still a lot to admire. Show People, by King Vidor, was one of the first of it’s kind, a film about the movie making industry, and it would be a formula that the studios would return to countless times during the golden age as homages to silent pictures of the past gained traction with moviegoers. The film is a light comedy starring Marion Davies, who had been mired in large, extravagant productions due to husband William Randolph Hearst’s influence. But she did poorly in those pictures, prompting the less than flattering portrayal of her in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Had she been in more films like this, however, her reputation might have been more positive.

In many ways the film is merely an excuse to parade some of MGM’s biggest stars across the screen. The plot is corny and unbelievable and unfortunately set the stage for all kinds of similarly stilted attempts at celebrating the silent era from Hollywood Cavalcade to Chaplin. Marion Davies plays a Southern belle who comes to California with her father, Dell Henderson, a Southern colonel convinced that her daughter’s parochial acting success will earn her an automatic entre into the film business. But she is herded into the line of extras along with hundreds of others, oblivious to the fact that she has no talent at all. In the commissary comedic actor William Haines takes a liking to her and gets her a spot in one of the comedies he’s filming. The director, Harry Gribbon, sets up her scene for her and Davis, convinced she is about to walk into a dramatic masterpiece, is hit with a pie in the face. Her outrage, however, is perfect for the scene and after a bout of tears learning what her fate is to be, quickly climbs the ladder of success, moving beyond the comedies Haines is stuck in and becoming a big star. When this happens she loses the charm she once had and, believing her own press, shuns the lowly comedians, including the heartbroken Haines, who gave her her start in the business. But Haines isn’t about to give up on the girl he loves.

Marion Davies is not a great actress, but she does have a certain amount of charm that is effective in a role like this. William Haines, on the other hand, tends to wear thin after a while, but that may have been due to the part he plays rather than his acting ability. The great Dell Henderson tends to steal the show when he’s onscreen. Taken as the frothy comedy it is, it’s not an unentertaining film overall. John Gilbert makes a couple of appearances as himself, as does director King Vidor. But there is also a great scene involving Charlie Chaplin. Seeing Davies in her first comedy, he goes over to get her autograph but she is so busy talking to Haines that she ignores Chaplin, only learning afterwards who he really was. The Washington Center for the Performing Arts has, for years now, presented a silent film series each spring. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the opportunity to attend. But a few weeks ago I was able to see their presentation of the MGM film Show People with an original score performed on the Wurlitzer organ by Dennis James. Of course “The Mighty Wurlitzer” has been denigrated over the years as being hopelessly old-fashioned and out of date, as passé as silent films themselves. But this was an absolutely delightful afternoon. The instrument was impressive and added another dimension to an average film and made it a truly memorable experience.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Academy Awards 2015

One of the unfortunate occurrences when a non-comedian hosts the Oscars is that they usually resort to a production number to open the show rather than a comedy routine. Still, host Neil Patrick Harris did a good job, and there were some very interesting special effects that accompanied his performance. He was also joined by Anna Kendrick onstage and in a nice cameo by Jack Black coming out of the front row to take part in the song that trashed the trend of unoriginal films that have flooded movie screens for the past decade. To be fair, Harris was able to interject a lot of humor into the proceedings, which included a life internet feed of his own Oscar predictions kept in a glass case onstage during the show. Throughout the show, various screen personalities introduced the best picture nominees, while the best song nominees were also performed at various intervals, the most moving of which was the Glenn Campbell song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which he recorded for his wife and daughter before the onset of Alzheimer’s claimed his performing abilities.

The first award is always for best supporting actor. It was a strange set of nominees this year from an odd assortment of films, but the Oscar went to J.K. Simmons for his role in Whiplash, a category he also won at this year’s Golden Globes. For costume design, an award usually going to the work on some kind of historical film, it went to the great Milena Canonero who took home her fourth Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel. The next award, for makeup artist, also went to The Grand Budapest Hotel for the team of Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier, who took home his second award. The category for best foreign language film had some very interesting Eastern European films nominated this year and, not surprisingly, the winner was the Polish film Ida. Best live action short film went to The Phone Call, a British film about a crisis center operator. And in a similar vein, the documentary short subject was won by Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. Viola Davis introduced the Governor’s Award winners, which went to, among others, Maureen O’Hara and Harry Belafonte. The award for sound mixing was given to Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley, the second win for the film Whiplash, while sound editing went to Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman, the first win for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. The best supporting actress category was particularly strong this year and the well-deserved award went to Patricia Arquette, from what I assumed wrongly would be just the opening salvo by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

For visual effects, usually a sci-fi category, this year was no exception as the award went to the Interstellar team of Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher. Next, in the animated short category, the winner was Feast, about a dog with a ravenous appetite, and for the best animated feature Big Hero 6 took home the Oscar. Far be it from me to suggest undue influence, but it’s no surprise that both these films were produced by John Lasseter at Disney. Like costumes, the award for production design almost always goes to a historical film and this year it went to The Grand Budapest Hotel again for the work of Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock. And best cinematography went to Emmanuel Lubezki for his innovative work on Birdman, the first award of the night for that film. Eventually it was time for the list of those who have been lost in the last year, which included Mickey Rooney, James Garner, Elizabeth Peña, Edward Herrmann, James Rebhorn, Louis Jourdan, Richard Attenborough, Ruby Dee, Robin Williams, Rod Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Eli Wallach, Bob Hoskins and Mike Nichols. The next award was for best film editing and went to Tom Cross, the third award of the night for Whiplash, while the best documentary feature went to Citizenfour, the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden. The best song came from the film Selma, and the song “Glory” received a standing ovation when it was performed at the ceremonies. One of my favorite categories, best film score, was won by Alexandre Desplat who was nominated for two films, winning for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

After that, all that remained were the awards for the big six. The first of these was for best original screenplay. The award went to writer-director Alejandro Iñárritu and his writing partners Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo for Birdman. For adapted screenplay the winner was Graham Moore, the first Oscar of the night for The Imitation Game. For best directing the Oscar also went to Alejandro Iñárritu for Birdman, but with the unique style of the film it was fitting. And he also made a terrific speech. The best actor category, with one glaring exception, was also a close race with Eddie Redmayn--who gave a once-in-a-lifetime performance as the world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking--taking the Oscar for The Theory of Everything. The nominees for best actress were very diverse and really could have gone to any one of them, but this was the biggest disappointment of the evening for me when Julianne Moore won for Still Alice. Finally, it was the moment we’d all been waiting for, best picture. And the winner is . . . Birdman. It was stunner for me, but even though the film didn’t win the most awards, it was certainly the big winner of the evening.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Director: Steve McQueen                              Writer: John Ridley
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                              Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Williams, and Michael Fassbender

For some reason I don’t tend to watch dramas at the theater, and choose instead to watch them at home. This has resulted in something of an Academy Award tradition for me in which I review the previous year’s winner for best picture on Oscar night. It’s very clear to me why 12 Years a Slave won. It’s a beautifully told story that is simply heart-wrenching, and yet still has a hopeful ending. In fact the title itself indicates the very temporal nature of the story. Oddly, however, this is a bit like The Monuments Men for me. While that story tells of the rescue of thousands of objects of art that were stolen by the Nazis, what it failed to do was to really address the tragedy of how many thousands were lost forever due to Nazi destruction, their way of saying if we can’t have it no one will. While watching Steve McQueen’s carefully crafted story, I couldn’t help be aware of how many millions of stories there were in that era that didn’t end so hopefully. Of course, there were glimpses of this in the characters played by Lupita Nyong’o and Adepero Oduye who have no one to rescue them. Even so, it is an undeniably powerful story that is well told and realistically rendered.

The film begins in the middle of the story, with Chiwetel Ejiofor working on a sugar plantation, chopping cane. From there the story flashes back to his home in Saratoga, New York. A free man, Ejiofor and his wife, Ashley Dyke, have two children and an upper middle-class existence. When his wife takes the children away to cook for a celebration that some white neighbors have every year, Ejiofor takes the opportunity to be seduced by some traveling showmen who want to hire him to play the violin to accompany their magic act down to Washington, D.C. But when the engagement is done, the two men drug Ejiofor and sell him into slavery to avoid paying him. Thus begins a long and tortuous existence for the formerly free black man. In a moment onboard a ship bound for New Orleans he is told by another free black who has been captured, to not say a word about his education or where he is from or he will eventually be killed. Once at the mouth of the Mississippi, he takes the advice to heart. First he is purchased by Paul Giamatti, a slave trader, then sold to the seemingly benevolent Benedict Cumberbatch. But when the taunts of overseer Paul Dano become too much, he fights back and is sold to a psychotic cotton farmer, Michael Fassbender.

While picking cotton for Fassbender, he discovers that the man has no use for his wife, Sarah Paulson. Instead, he enjoys the affections of slave Lupita Nyong’o which puts her in the middle of their conflict. Paulson abuses her as often as she can, while Fassbender rapes her, and eventually Nyong’o begs Ejiofor to kill her. But he can’t. His plan is to bide his time until opportunities to get word to New York present themselves. The first thing one notices about the picture is the claustrophobic telling of the story. In screenwriter John Ridley’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Solomon Northup’s story he chose to take the first-person narrative directly to the screen. As such, there is nothing shown in the film that isn’t from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s point of view, nor is there any first-person voiceover from Ejiofor. The audience is trapped, just like he is, in this bizarre world of cruel and inhuman treatment of other human beings. In fact, it’s not until nearly the end of the picture that we meet anyone who has the temerity to speak his mind about the evils of slavery, and that comes in the form of one of the film’s producers, Brad Pitt, an architect from Canada who speaks plainly to Fassbender of the evil he is perpetrating. And yet even Pitt’s presence, as heartening as it is, only reinforces just how isolating the deep South is for Ejiofor because of the utter lack of opportunity to escape. That is, while the slaves may leave the property at their leisure . . . there is absolutely nowhere to go in which they can remain free.

Interestingly, there were a couple of fascinating things I heard in a discussion of slavery by author David Brion Davis about his series of books on The Problem of Slavery. One was about the institution of the Fugitive Slave Act as a way to placate Southern slaveholders in an age that was moving increasingly toward Emancipation. While over forty-five thousand runaway slaves were living in the North by the time the Civil War began, less than three hundred runaways were actually returned using the fugitive slave laws. Slave trading, on the other hand, had been outlawed for many years, which allowed for the kind of kidnapping that is shown in the movie, capturing free blacks and selling them “down the river” with almost no hope of being returned home again in order to supply plantation owners with new slaves when they couldn’t be imported from Africa. But the other thing Davis talked about, when the film was mentioned directly, is that the community in which Solomon Northup lived did not represent the experience of a majority of free blacks in the North. Racial discrimination was very much a part of their experience and also accounted for many Northerners looking the other way when things like his kidnapping happened.

There are certainly some fine performances in the film. Chiwetel Ejiofor could not have been a better choice. The naiveté that he displays in the beginning of the film and his eventual transformation into a hardened survivor are what earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor. Michael Fassbender also earned a nomination in a supporting role for his portrayal of the brainwashed slaveholder. But it was the suffering and anguish of Lupita Nyong’o that won the third of the film’s Academy Awards last year, for best supporting actress. Steve McQueen’s direction of the film is not very flamboyant, and the film is the better for it. It many ways it is a small film, focusing on one man’s experience. The careful attention to historical detail was also recognized by nominations for Patricia Norris’s costume design, and the production design team of Adam Stockhausen and Alice Baker, while Joe Walker’s film editing and director McQueen earned the film’s remaining nominations. 12 Years a Slave is a disturbing and moving motion picture that captures a moment in American history that has, unfortunately, not entirely left us. Race inequality is still one of the embarrassing legacies of a country that trumpets its own moral authority around the world but has yet to fully come to terms with it at home. Films like this need to be made in order to remind us of our continuing failure as a society to address these issues in a way that will truly close the book on our past.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tandem Hearts (2012)

Director: Jon Garcia                                      Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Toby Nathaniel                           Cinematography: Jeff Hammond
Starring: Quinn Allan, Heather Harlan, Rebecca Teran and Nick Ferrucci

While Jon Garcia’s first film, Tandem Hearts, is definitely a first film, it is also a harbinger of the greatness that would follow. Produced in 2009, but not completed until some three years later, it is the story of a young couple who have run out steam and attempt to jump start their relationship by moving to a new city to start a new life. Unfortunately, once they get there they realize they have brought their moribund relationship along with them. While the tendency in Hollywood might have been to manufacture some kind of happy ending for the film--even in the sense of simply moving on--Garcia allows the viewer to wallow in the pain. But it’s not a masochistic experience because of it. There’s a wistfulness to the story that is undeniable, and though the description bitter-sweet has lost its meaning through overuse, there seems no more accurate phrase to describe the experience. While many small, independent films painfully attempt to portray reality--and to be fair there’s some of that here--there is also a sense that the purpose here is somewhat larger. The emotions that are pulled from the audience have been done so in a very careful and deliberate way by a thoughtful artist with a distinctive vision that would fully show itself in his very next film, The Falls.

This film begins in an old garage, with Quinn Allan walking over to a covered, tandem bicycle and pulling off the tarp. This is followed by a very nice 3-D animated title sequence. Each act of the film is also prefaced by Allan taking out a fresh CD and writing on it. The first section, in Boise, Idaho, is labeled Track 1. It begins at a going away party for Allan at the house he’s living in before he moves to Portland, Oregon. Later that night in bed his girlfriend, Heather Harlan, seems a bit nervous about the move they’re making, and they turn away from each other to go to sleep. But the next morning they finish packing the U-Haul trailer and hit the road. During the trip, however, there is a sense of unease working in Harlan. While Allan takes the trip in stride, sleeping in the car or the hotel, Harlan is restless, as though she’s stuck on the back end of that tandem bike with someone else steering. Track 2 begins outside of Portland at a gas station, stopping for supplies. Once they reach the furnished house they’re renting, a certain gender stereotype creeps into the shots, with Allan checking out the TV and pulling down a giant sword from the wall, while Harlan takes a look in the kitchen. After unpacking they go to a bar and a couple of locals give them the lay of the land.

From there the daily routine of existence begins, working on the car, going shopping, and finding jobs. Harlan goes to a party without Allan, and talks about moving to Portland because she wanted a change, the subtext being that she may want a change from Allan. When Harlan gets a job, however, things settle down and the audience gets its first glimpse of what the couple is really like together as they make dinner, sing together, and watch TV. Garcia wonderfully transitions into the couple’s problems by showing the first rain in the film. Then Harlan engineers about the most awkward sex scene on film. Nothing dramatic, but emblematic of the couple’s lack of intimacy, especially considering they haven’t had sex since they left Idaho. The story is not a unique one, and in many ways a simple recounting of the plot does a real disservice to the film. Right from the opening, the viewer is aware that this is a director who has a passion for visuals. The glow of the sunlight washing out Allan’s features in the opening shot as he enters the garage is beautiful. And the road sequence on the way from Idaho to Oregon begins with a terrific montage.

But there are also some questionable choices as well. Garcia has his cinematographers pull out of focus frequently and while the effect is interesting in a way--like Terrence Malick’s elliptical editing--it soon becomes a cliché that draws attention to itself rather than something uniquely part of his directorial vision. And there are standard problems with the screenplay, a typically weak point in many first films, and young actors working too hard to play normal. In many ways Garcia attempts to do more here than he’s capable of, but rather than failing it comes off as young director stretching himself, working at the edge of his abilities, and as a result it is far more admirable than amateurish. For one thing, his use of close-ups is particularly distinctive, a trait that he would carry through to his later films with great effect. For another, his use of space makes the set--in this case a rented house--become almost another character in the film in a way that few directors of any stripe are able to do. Garcia also has a penchant for unique songs on his soundtrack, some of them written by him. But where in other independent films the lyrics can become intrusive, he seems to have a deft touch with knowing just how to use these songs for maximum effect

Quinn Allan, in his only his second feature, does a respectable job but seems to have the same issue that he did in his first film, The Roomies, in that he gets better as the picture progresses. In the early scenes he looks adrift in terms of how to play them, while in the later half of the picture he finally settles down and does some very good work. A similar effect haunts Heather Harlan’s work but again, after the breakup, she really begins to get comfortable in her character in a way that makes her much more believable in the second half of the film. Rebecca Teran is the friendly barista that Allan has a crush on, and she does a terrific job later on in the film, while Nick Ferrucci has only a small role as a guest at a couple of parties. Tom Stutzman begins his first scene, as a musician friend of Allan’s, as a stock character, but quickly makes an impact as someone who’s very genuine. The title of the film, along with the visual of Allan riding the bike without a partner, had the potential to be a lot more powerful symbolically than the way in which it was actually used, but the symbolism is still there. The most powerful stamp of the director, however, is in the way he ends his films. Can I call it “Vintage Garcia?” Tandem Heats may not have been the best cinematic meal I’ve ever eaten, but the dessert Garcia serves at the end is the most satisfying I could ask for.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Arbuckle and Keaton, Vol. 1 (1917-19)

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle                             Writer: Roscoe Arbuckle
Music: Neil Brand (2001)                               Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John and Alice Lake

As absolutely dreadful as Buster Keaton’s enforced partnership was with Jimmy Durante later in his career, that’s how terrific his work was with Fatty Arbuckle at the beginning. What is so impressive right from the beginning is Arbuckle’s willingness to give Keaton so much screen time in his films, to perform many of his gags on his own. In addition, with Arbuckle writing and directing his own films it inspired Keaton to do the same later on, which made him arguably the greatest silent comedian of all time. At this point, however, at the end of World War One, it was Arbuckle who was the biggest name in comedy, even ahead of Chaplin. Kino Video has gathered all but one of the Arbuckle and Keaton shorts into two volumes that demonstrate amply why not only Keaton, but Fatty Arbuckle, was such a huge star. Of course, the incident that ended the partnership was the spurious murder charge against Arbuckle that killed his career. And while it was a real blow to Keaton at the time, it may have been the best thing for The Great Stone Face, as it forced him into his own spectacular career rather than continuing to play wingman to Arbuckle.

The Bell Boy, from 1918, makes no pretension to story. It is simply a series of gags set around the lobby of a hotel. Fatty is the elevator operator while Buster is the bellhop, but they both perform multiple duties. Sight gags and slapstick are present in equal measure, one of the finest of the former is Buster’s cleaning of the glass in the phone booth, while the later is the acrobatics of the three leads when the towel warmer keeps knocking the hat off of Charles Dudley, as well as the anarchic finale at the bank. But the centerpiece of sight gags is Arbuckle’s barber service for a customer first though to be Rasputin. Even the throwaways are funny, like the sign on a building exterior that reads, “Last National Bank.” Then next film is The Butcher Boy from 1917. Set in a grocery store, it is notable for being Keaton’s first onscreen performance. While Arbuckle does some nice work in the butcher shop, Keaton doesn’t enter until halfway through the film, but he has a couple of very nice gags, the first is when Fatty pours molasses into Buster’s had, and the second is when he throws the sack of flour and puts Buster’s head where his feet were, a scene that ends, again, in complete anarchy. As always, however, Fatty ends up getting the girl.

From 1918 comes Out West, with Fatty as hobo riding the rails, and Keaton as a combination sheriff and saloon owner. After Fatty is dumped off in the desert, he is chased by three Indians who treat it like a buffalo hunt. Later, Al St. John comes into the saloon with his gang to rob it prompting the classic sight gag of the hands on the clock raising up to eleven and one. But Fatty stumbles in and foils the robbery, and so Buster hires him tend the bar. In one scene that seems to begin as an unconscious racial slur, the men are firing at Ernie Morrison Sr.’s feet to get him to tap dance, but fortunately Alice Lake comes in from the Salvation Army and shames them for doing it. This film seems to suffer from being incomplete as there are several jump cuts and no real ending. Next is Moonshine from the same year. It is the story of bootleggers from Virginia, but Arbuckle plays the whole thing as a joke, writing title cards that reference the film itself throughout. It’s a unique touch that, while robbing it of any suspension of disbelief, nevertheless entertains, especially when Alice Lake jumps into Fatty’s arms and when her father objects, Fatty says “Look, this is only a two reeler. We don’t have time to build up to love scenes.” Where the last film had pieces missing, this film is the most washed out of the collection and it’s difficult to see faces at all at times.

The final film of this volume is The Hayseed from 1919, the second to last film the two would make together. Fatty plays the clerk in a general store while Buster mans the garage. Jackie Coogan Sr. plays Fatty’s rival for the affections of Molly Malone, culminating at one of the Saturday dances held at the store. The highlight is the talent competition when Fatty sings after eating onions. Throughout, one is not only impressed by the two leads, but the work of Al St. John is particularly good, and Alice Lake is clearly the best of Arbuckle’s leading ladies. Overall, the set is quite good. If there’s a weakness, however, it is one that occurs on many of the Kino reissues, and that’s the use of the Alloy Orchestra on the soundtrack. For my taste it is just wrong. The dissonance and the repetition are incredibly annoying, and I find myself looking for something else to go with the films. This time I wound up listening to Carl Davis’s music for Chaplin’s Mutual comedies and even without synchronization it was infinitely better. As for the visuals, Arbuckle certainly had a gift, and his decision to use Buster Keaton was inspired, as each of them made the other better. Arbuckle and Keaton are classic comedians, and their power to entertain never seems to diminish with time.

The Monuments Men (2014)

Director: George Clooney                               Writer: Grant Heslov
Film Score: Alexandre Desplat                       Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett

One of the great taglines in movie criticism was when this film was first released and critic David Edelstein called it “The Dainty Dozen.” While incredibly humorous in its own right, the way the comparisons play out for George Clooney’s The Monuments Men with Robert Aldrich’s Vietnam era classic The Dirty Dozen also make it instructively appropriate. Aldrich’s World War II film was about convicted soldiers set to be executed but given a second chance to die in battle. Clooney’s World War II nostalgia piece is about over-the-hill art experts volunteering to go into Europe after the Normandy invasion to rescue the artworks the Nazi’s were stealing wholesale to take back to Germany. But where Aldrich managed to wring a lot of humor from serious situations, Clooney’s attempt a milking drama from a comedic premise is much less successful. At two and a half hours, Aldrich’s film gave the audience time to get to know the men and identify with them so that their deaths were meaningful. But even at two hours, it seems that we barely get to know Clooney’s men in a way that pushes past their considerable onscreen personas. It’s too bad, because it is a unique and mostly unknown chapter in World War II history that deserved much better.

The story is based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Brett Witter about the allied attempt to, at first, protect precious buildings and museums from being destroyed during the Allied advance, but eventually became about finding stolen art and retrieving it from the Nazis. George Clooney is the American art historian who initially goes to Roosevelt to tell him of the dire situation concerning European art at the time. But Roosevelt, more concerned with winning the war than rescuing art, says that if Clooney wants to take charge of the mission personally, then he’ll okay it. To help him, Clooney enlists another of his colleagues, Matt Damon, and the two of them put together a team of artists, historians, and architects to go into France after D-Day and save this art from Nazi destruction during their retreat, or Allied destruction on their way into Germany. The three other Americans are Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Bob Balban, and they are joined by British scholar Hugh Bonneville and French resistance fighter Jean Dujardin. A subplot in Paris involves a museum being run by Nazi military man Justus von Dohnányi as a staging ground for the looting of the West, which involves regular visits from Herman Goering who picks out personal treasures to be sent back for his private collection, and those to be sent to Hitler personally. The secretary of the museum, however, is Kate Blanchett who has kept a meticulous diary of every piece of art being moved through the museum.

The Monuments Men, as Clooney has dubbed them, go through a truncated basic training, and then are shipped out to Normandy. There they come up against massive resistance from commanders who absolutely refuse to avoid bombing certain buildings. Soon, however, the team discovers that most of the art has been stolen anyway, and their mission shifts from protecting the art, to discovering where the Nazis have hidden it. Matt Damon attempts to get information from Cate Blanchett, but she is curiously unwilling to help him, assuming that they will simply steal it from the Nazis and take it back to the U.S. The team then splits up, following rumors and conversation between captured prisoners to help them track down the treasure. It’s clear where Clooney and screenwriter Grant Heslov were going with the story. It’s a fish out of water tale with elderly art experts dressed in uniforms, and he went with established comedic actors to underpin the obvious comedic overtones of the film, including the relationship that he had with Damon in the Ocean’s films. Ultimately, however, this actually seems to work against the film. Having older dramatic actors might have been the better move, allowing the natural humor in the situations to stand on its own. As it is, the combined weight of the comedic personas the principals bring to the picture tend to bog the whole thing down.

The biggest flaw in the picture, though, is the pathos that Clooney so obviously reaches for, when the screenplay hasn’t really earned it for him. A director like Steven Spielberg might have been able to earn it, but with so little time or substance in which to be invested in the characters, it rings hollow here. When Bill Murray gets a Christmas recording from home, it’s as though he’s been fighting for years--something most of the Allied soldiers had been--when he’s only been in Europe for a couple of weeks, a borderline insult to the rest of the soldiers. Likewise, Hugh Bonneville’s obsession with a sculpture, something that becomes the basis for most of the pathos in the rest of the film, isn’t sufficiently fleshed out and fails to unify the second half of the film in the way it was intended. The true moments of soul-sinking despair are actually for the works of art themselves. While the end of the film rightfully celebrates how much was saved, the audience could have done with one last jab at the Nazis by estimating how many works of priceless art were lost forever because they violated Hitler’s personal lack of taste or because they didn’t have the time to remove them. Still, the acting is good, as would be expected from this veteran cast. Clooney’s direction is serviceable, though little else, and it’s to his credit that despite the flaws it is still a very watchable film. The Monuments Men, while not essential viewing, is still an important story that deserves telling and has its entertaining moments along the way.