Tuesday, 15 April 2014

CAPER FILM: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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The Grand Budapest Hotel (UK/ Germany, 2014)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrian Brody, Willem Dafoe

When I reviewed Moonrise Kingdom over a year ago, I complained that it was hard to form strong emotional bonds with the characters because the entire film felt overly choreographed. While Wes Anderson's brilliance as a cinematic craftsman was never in any doubt, it all felt a little too tightly controlled to pass muster as a genuinely heartwarming story about young love and free spirits. 
The Grand Budapest Hotel is equally meticulous in its craft, but it is a much better vehicle for Anderson. Its status as a caper comedy places a much more conscious emphasis on the various plot machinations, allowing him to show off his knowledge and affection for cinema without undermining or overshadowing his characters. The result is a very funny slice of finely-tuned frivolity which finds Anderson almost back to his best.
 
As with all of Anderson's work, The Grand Budapest Hotel looks absolutely beautiful. There is the same powdery quality to the colour scheme as in Moonrise Kingdom, but the emphasis has shifted from summery yellows and woody browns to darker, more regal blues and frothy pinks. Anderson's compositions are as meticulous as ever, and the film utilises many of his familiar tricks, such as symmetrical wide shots, carefully timed circular pans and quirky model shots.
 
As with all of Anderson's films, however, there are unusual narrative quirks which can sometimes threaten to make the experience too arch and alienating to bond with the characters. In this case, there is his device of handing over the telling of the story from one person to another. The film begins with a lady reading a book in front of a statue of Tom Wilkinson; then Wilkinson (the author of the book) hands over to Jude Law (his younger self); then Law talks to F. Murray Abraham, who finally begins to recount his memories.
 
It's easy to understand the point that Anderson is making through this device. He is positively besotted with the art of storytelling and is trying to convey that love through a visual medium rather than a literary one. There's also a sly nod with the casting of Abraham, since Amadeus employed a similar device of its main character recounting the story in his old age. But while this device is affectionate, it is not entirely necessary to the story being told, and your enjoyment therein will depend on whether you regard it as an apt demonstration of passion or a needless indulgence.
 
To some extent, this dilemma is presented in the visuals of the film. While the main action takes place in the early-1930s, with the horrors of World War II still far away, the introduction takes place in the late-1960s. Interwar opulence and luxury is counterpointed with Soviet-era functionality, and by repeating mechanical actions in both periods (such as the strange transport to the hotel), an air of decline and melancholy quickly descends upon proceedings.
 
Having created an intriguing mood, Anderson gives us a number of quirky, interesting characters with whom we bond and whom we find very funny. Much of the praise has deservedly centred on Ralph Fiennes, who is absolutely brilliant as Gustave H.. The performance works because he believes so deeply in the character on a dramatic level; Fiennes' chops give Gustave a sense of weight and purpose which an out-and-out comic actor might not have achieved. It's an irresitible blend of whimsy, pathos, elegance and mischief, and may be one of the best of Fiennes' illustrious career.
 
As I mentioned in my Moonrise Kingdom review, much of the pleasure of Anderson's films comes from him getting performances out of actors that no-one would have expected. It's not too much of a stretch to have Willem Dafoe as a thug in knuckle-dusters, or Jeff Goldblum as a stuffy, by-the-book lawyer (who ends up losing his fingers). But it is a pleasant surprise to see Adrian Brody as the villain of the piece, or Tilda Swinton as Gustave's elderly lover whose death sets off the entire caper.
 
In executing the caper aspect of the film, Anderson plays a very crafty trick. The quirkiness of his characters leads us to accept that they will speak in a manner which is different to our own; we accept this within the first five minutes as part of the overall style. This quirkiness allows him to have characters delivering exposition at break-neck speed, and yet it feels like a long joke rather than plot details.
 
There are numerous scenes in The Grand Budapest Hotel which are just characters reciting plot exposition directly to camera, something that would have been roundly lambasted had the film been helmed by another director. But rather than do as Hitchcock did and "sugar-coat" exposition with suspense, Anderson deliberately draws attention to it and uses it to celebrate the caper genre in all its ridiculousness. It's not so much hidden in plain sight as a Brechtian device, with the film constantly reminding you of its artificiality.
 
This is further reflected in the film's set-pieces. Take the hysterically funny sledging sequence, in which Gustave and Zero chase Jopling down a slalom course and ski jump, ending with Zero flinging Jopling off a cliff. The close-ups are achieved with the Hollywood technique of back projection, while the aerial shots are consciously done with detailed scale models. It's arguably just a massive Hitchcock reference, looking back to the skiing scene in the opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
 
Like Bertolt Brecht's work, The Grand Budapest Hotel draws our attention to the artificial, mechanical nature of the story in order to illuminate some deeper, universal truth. On top of being a great, frothy caper, the film is about the passing of an age and with it a particular kind of character. Gustave is characterised throughoutt as being the last of a breed, someone already out of sorts in his own time and longing for release. The film presents its own fictional take on the build-up to World War II, with Gustave coming across like a lighter, more dandyish companion to Christopher Tietjens, the protagonist of Parade's End.
The true success of Anderson's film is that it allows you to enjoy it on whichever level you please. It operates on the same principle as Gladiator: it is both a philosophical exploration of death, morality and a life beyond this, and two hours of people hitting each other. You can read into The Grand Budapest Hotel's colour schemes, seeing the pink motif as a symbol of faded passion and sexuality, or you can just sit there laughing louder and louder at the brilliant action. Both responses are valid, and while the film is not as deep as Gladiator, it deserves praise for achieving this balance. 
The Great Budapest Hotel sees Anderson returning to form, delivering a film whose whimsy and quirkiness is anchored and balanced by enjoyable, empathetic characters. While some will still balk at his approach to storytelling, and it isn't as thematically rich as perhaps it could have been, it is still an immensely enjoyable, funny and rewarding watch. It is a good way to introduce newcomers to Anderson's signature style, and is the most enjoyable film of the year to date.

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NEXT REVIEW: Stardust (2007)

Monday, 14 April 2014

BLOG SPOT #23: Chat Politics/ Chat Life

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Welcome to this month's Blot Spot, where I give space to the work of others in a bid to cancel out my own enormous ego. This month we're remaining in YouTube-land, where we left Darren Lock last month, but shifting our focus from prog rock to politics. I give you Oscar Pearson, Philip Chidell and the aptly-titled Chat Politics.
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Unlike many of the reviewers I've publicised on this blog, I can count at least half of the team behind Chat Politics as a close friend. I first met Oscar shortly after I moved to Devon, becoming involved in his ambitions to get a community radio station in his home town of Ottery St. Mary. Through our combined efforts we managed to do a weekend-long trial broadcast of Radio Ottery online, to which I also contributed a programme called Soundtrack Stories. Oscar and I have been firm friends ever since, with me even helping him to film an (as-yet-unaired) interview with Ben Bradshaw MP.
 
Chat Politics is a series of video interviews presented by Oscar and shot by Philip, who recently won Mark Kermode's 'Well Done U' competition with his short film Pong. Its intention is to engage young people and students in politics by giving political figures, of all parties and persuasions, a platform to articulate their beliefs in a more informal, conversational manner than is often afforded to them in public life. The duo also recently launched Chat Life, a side project along similar lines involving interviews with less political figures, such as comedian and QI regular Jo Brand.
There are numerous things that I enjoy or admire about Chat Politics. Considering the duo have no real budget, it looks extremely professional; the majority of the interviews are well-lit, have good sound and are tastefully conducted. Despite still being a student (at the University of York), Oscar is a skillful and adept interviewer, who is respectful towards his guests and always manages to build up some kind of rapport (even with John Humphrys, which is no easy task).
But the biggest reason to like Chat Politics is that it does succeed in its central aim of making politics accessible. Oscar and Philip ask the kind of questions people of their generation want to ask but rarely get the chance to, and they are good at teasing out responses when their guests are not forthcoming. They have managed to secure a pretty illustrious pantheon of guests, including former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, UKIP leader Nigel Farrage, ex-Tory MP Gyles Brandreth and Tony Blair's former spin doctor Alasdair Campbell. To achieve this without being adversarial or aggressive in the manner of most Westminster politics is immensely admirable, and their work deserves to be more widely-seen.
You can watch all the Chat Politics and Chat Life interviews on YouTube or via ChatPolitics.org. You can stay up to date by liking the Facebook page or following on Twitter @ChatPolitics. You can also follow Oscar and Philip on Twitter individually, @oscarjpearson and @pchidell respectively. Join me next month for another Blog Spot!

Daniel

Friday, 11 April 2014

FURUBA FRIDAYS: Episode 24 - Still Sleeping

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Welcome to another edition of Furuba Fridays, our weekly look at the Fruits Basket Radio Drama created by JesuOtaku. And after the best part of six months, we have reached the final episode of the drama as it currently stands.
Of course, this is not where the story of Fruits Basket ends. It's not even where the radio drama is planned to end, with a further twelve episodes being somewhere in the pipeline. JO has been devoting her energies to other projects since this episode aired, including her main anime reviews and her contributions to the Anime News Network, and it's unclear as to when she'll be returning to the project. This episode, then, leaves us hanging in more ways than one, with many questions over the future of the characters as much as the project as a whole.
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Much like Episode 15, which I covered way back in January, this episode finds both us and the characters looking in two different directions: backwards towards a warm past, and forwards into an uncertain, unfamiliar future. Not only does the episode flesh out some details about Tohru's mother Kyoko (explaining Uo's dress sense in the process), but there are lots of nods back to previous events between the characters, either directly in the manga or hinted at by JO herself.
Some of these nods take the form of dialogue from older episodes being repeated with added echo, such as Grandpa's "take good care of Kyoko" in Episode 6 or Tohru's remarks about colds in Episode 13. Others take the form of recurring sound effects, such as the train sounds from Episode 15 which preceded Kyo running off into the woods. Others still are continuations of existing events, with the story of the baseball cap from Episode 7 finally getting a conclusion. This latter example also sees the (sadly) brief return of Katie McAteer as the young Tohru, and she's just as adorable as ever.
In addition to all the references to past events, there's a lot of foreshadowing in this episode, which might explain why it took so long to grow on me. Much of Kyo and Hana's conversation, which forms the centrepiece of the episode, concerns events which won't be explored until much later in the manga. I can't say much without giving everything away, but suffice to say Kyo may be closer connected to Tohru's mother than events so far have led us to believe.
This conversation, brilliantly played out by Phil Burgraff and Melle Teich, has a great sense of threat to it which balances out the brighter banter with Uo and Tohru. JO reuses one of the musical pieces from Akito's meeting with Tohru in Episode 20, with the gender dynamic being reversed so that now the male participant is being intimidated. There has been much discussion on sites like TV Tropes about whether Hana knew about the Zodiac curse all along, a matter I previously floated in my review of Episode 7. At this stage, it's more a case of her looking through a glass darkly; however much she can perceive, it's not an accurate reflection, though it's still more than enough to spook Kyo.
Like last week's tearjerker, JO adds a lot of extra dialogue here to fill the various silences littered throughout the manga. Much of Kyo and Yuki's time is spent in quiet reflection, as they try to rationalise the strange feelings brought to the fore by visiting the grave. Kyo is given extra conversations with Tohru which adeptly illustrate his distant, distracted nature, while Evan Bremer keeps things settled while hinting at more complex thoughts beneath the surface. JO also omits the last four pages, which would be a problem were they not simply an advert for a CD drama based on the manga (it would be interesting to hear her thoughts on it, if she has heard it).
The acid test of any gripping drama is that it leaves you wanting more. You want to find out what happened to the characters next, entertaining many possibilities and speculating as to what the finest details of their conversation actually meant. Being a big fan of Fruits Basket, I'm obviously keen for the drama to continue for as long as energy allows, but even if you're less of a fan this episode leaves you dangling in a very engrossing way. It puts us right in the situation of the characters, uncertain as to what we should think but compelled to carry on searching for answers.

So without further ado, here is the last episode of the Fruits Basket Radio Drama that has been produced to date. But while the drama is over (at least for now), we're not quite done with Furuba Fridays yet. Come back next week when we'll give a fair hearing to some of the cast members who have yet to make an appearance. See you then!
Download Episode 23 - Memorial here

NEXT WEEK: The Other Cast Members...

Thursday, 10 April 2014

OVERRATED: Ghostbusters (1984)

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Ghostbusters (USA, 1984)
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Starring Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver

There are a select number of films held in such high regard in popular culture that to even faintly criticise them is considered heresy. Like Star Wars before it, Ghostbusters is a film which seemingly everyone is aware of, and even if you've never seen it you can probably hum the theme tune or quote the script. It's a seemingly iconic work, a high-water mark of American comedy that anyone with a sense of humour should enjoy.
 
What such an attitude fails to acknowledge is that film taste is inherently subjective, particularly when it comes to comedy. Regular readers of my reviews will already have a fair idea of what my tastes are: I like my comedies on the darker side, preferably surreal but crucially substantial - I like comedies that are about something. It may be, therefore, that I am predisposed to dislike Ghostbusters, being as it is a shallow, high-concept star vehicle. Or, just as probably, it may be that it just isn't funny.
 
There are a couple of aspects to Ghostbusters which we are able to admire regardless of how funny we find it. Despite being essentially a vehicle for former Saturday Night Live stars, the film is a reasonably literate affair, at least as far as the horror genre is concerned. There are big references throughout to the work of H. P. Lovecraft, including the isolated, academic nature of its protagonists, the slimy nature of the ghosts (such as Slimer himself), and of course the involvement of ancient gods who are at best indifferent towards humanity.
 
The film also deserves credit for being a mainstream blockbuster which has intelligent people as its protagonists. We've become used to our summer blockbusters being populated by characters who are complete idiots, bound up in plots which can only make sense if everyone involved is either stupid or doesn't care. Ghostbusters, one of the biggest blockbusters in history, bucks this trend: it unashamedly celebrates the cleverness of its male leads, giving us characters who succeed through brains rather than good looks or good luck.
 
Unfortunately, this bit of praise also brings us onto one of the big problems with Ghostbusters, namely the characters. While Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis made their heroes intellectual in nature, each of the three main parts are severely underwritten. Bill Murray's character seems driven only by a need to be sarcastic or seductive, while Aykroyd and Ramis do little else but stand around explaining the plot. No matter how many dry one-liners Murray gets through, the characters don't feel like real people.
 
The best way to illustrate this point is the words of Stephen Fry, when he was interviewed about the difference between British and American comedy. Fry argued that the archetypal American comic hero is a wise-cracker who is above those around him, embodiying the belief in American culture that everything can be bettered or improved. While British comic heroes are distinctive characters (and expressions of failure), American comic heroes are "not characters at all, they're just brilliant repositories of fantastic, killer one-liners."
 
Aykroyd, Murray and Ramis are all essentially playing to type, and there is no real chemistry between them because the types are constantly in awkward competition with each other. Murray's deadpan wise-cracking doesn't gel with Aykroyd's fast-talking or Ramis' forgettable geekiness. The same goes for Rick Moranis, whose socially incompetent accountant is excrutiating: it's played so broadly and unrelentingly that it always grates against the story. Even Sigourney Weaver is underused, with her character existing only to get hit on, first by Murray and then by Zuul.
 
Of course, it is possible for a film with stereotypical characters to still fire if its script has a strong enough story. The James Bond series is absolutely littered with archetypal characters, with the best films in the series having a good enough story to make them not matter so much. But despite its faithful nods to Lovecraft and its intellectual protagonists, Ghostbusters still manages to make the very least of its material.
 
The plot of Ghostbusters essentially takes the first half of the 1946 film Spook Busters and then slowly unravels it through a steadily increasing parade of special effects. Like the Beverly Hills Cop series, the story is not so much a story as it is a series of set-pieces; they are linked together loosely by montage, but you could still watch them in any order with the same impact. As for the dialogue, 80% of it is meaningless jargon designed to big up the characters' intelligence. But simply saying a lot of long words doesn't make a character smart, giving us even less reason to bond with them.
 
As with Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters could have had a much more complex and satisfying story if a little bit more effort had been put into it. The idea of man-made structures being engineered to harness the power of gods is a nice, pulpy idea; it's only a hop, skip and jump from the work of Erich von Däniken, whose writings were a big influence on the fourth Indiana Jones film. When allied to Lovecraft, this could have formed an interesting premise, with a team of scientists seeking to stop an individual driven mad by knowledge of ancient demons, and trying to unleash those demons onto the human world.
 
Part of the reason Ghostbusters doesn't work on a story level is its indecisive pussy-footing around spiritual questions. Any film or story in which ghosts are involved immediately raises questions about the afterlife - what ghosts are, how they function, where the boundaries lie between different worlds and so forth. But the film either fails to acknowledge such questions or provides contradicting answers; for instance, it accepts the existence of extremely powerful gods, but also believes that humans can conquer said gods with little more than beams of energy. It's another indication of the laziness present in the script, as the film squanders another interesting angle for the sake of a simple, easy-to-follow climax.
 
The special effects in Ghostbusters were provided by Boss Films, who later provided the effects for John Carpenter's cult disaster Big Trouble in Little China. In both films they dominate the visual landscape rather than adding to the physical sets, to the point where the characters become swamped by them. The big special effects ending, involving the gateway on top of the skyscraper, is a big anticlimax because it doesn't feel physical or like a natural continuation of the narrative. Even the physical effects, such as Zuul's appearance in the fridge, aren't that convincing even for the day.
 
Then we come to the problems with the film's direction. Ghostbusters looks and sounds perfectly okay, boasting decent cinematography from László Kovács (Easy Rider) and a score from John Landis' long-time collaborator Elmer Bernstein. But as far as its direction goes, Ivan Reitman is every bit at sea with his cast here as Martin Brest was on Beverly Hills Cop. In both cases the camerawork is overly basic and the editing is slack, as though Reitman just left the cameras on until someone said something funny.
 
In a further comparison with Beverly Hills Cop, there are a number of tonal problems with Ghostbusters. The film doesn't have the uncomfortable homophobic undercurrent running through it like Brest's film, but it doesn't have a great deal of respect for its female characters. The scene where Zuul captures Dana, in which hands come through the chair and grab her, is uncomfortably rapey, and the levitation scene (which rips off The Exorcist) is just another excuse to put the character in needlessly sexual situations. Blockbusters are often accused of being built around the needs of teenage boys, and looking at scenes like the latter, it's not hard to see why.
 
Ghostbusters is a deeply unfunny comedy which deserves little if any of its glowing reputation. Despite a number of dry laughs and admirable decisions, it squanders most of its potential in favour of cheap stereotypes, sex jokes and special effects, none of which engage to any satisfying degree. It's not the low point in the careers of any of its stars (which is very telling of each of them), but it hasn't stood the test of time anything like as well as we've been led to believe. In short, it's a massive disappointment that's even bigger than the Twinkie. 

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NEXT REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Saturday, 5 April 2014

FURUBA FRIDAYS: Episode 23 - Memorial

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Welcome to another edition of Furuba Fridays, our continuing look at the brilliant Fruits Basket Radio Drama. This week is the penultimate episode of the drama as it currently stands - and in the tradition of Fruits Basket, it's not going to be an easy ride.
So far in this radio drama we've encounter our fair share of emotional trauma. We've had Hatori's enforced break-up with Kana in Episode 12, Haru's childhood rage in Episode 14, and Akito's tormenting of Yuki in Episode 20. But of all the episodes we've encountered thus far, this is perhaps the most 'feelsy', to borrow a term from fangirls. In fact, after a relatively upbeat opening, it becomes a barrage of emotional baggage and heartbreak at which it is impossible not to cry (or at least feel really low).
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While the previous examples I listed focussed on trauma surrounding the individual Zodiac members, this episode looks at the impact that being a child of the Zodiac can have on the parents involved. It becomes all the more powerful considering we are dealing with this through Momiji, who up to this point has always seemed the most cheerful member and the most at peace with the curse. It's a way of deepening his character without feeling like a complete volte-face, a sign of how well-written the manga is.
 
Bringing the wider Sohma family into the story is a way of showing just how painful the curse is - how it contaminates and damages the lives of everyone associated with it, not just the people who transform. There is a comparison between the fate of Momiji's mother and that of Kana, which both the manga and the radio drama reflect; both characters are loving in nature but find it impossible to cope with the curse, only improving when their memories are suppressed. It's utterly heartbreaking, particularly the lines where Momiji goes into detail about his rejection.
In bringing this episode to life, JesuOtaku makes quite a number of changes to flesh out aspects of the manga. Unlike Ayame's episodes, there are a lot of silent panels this time around, resulting in more conversations or monologues to explain what is going on. These range from the addition of the janitor in Momiji's first scene, which makes the big reveal have more impact later on, to the note about Momiji living with Hatori, which ties right back to his presence in Episode 10. All these little touches might not seem like much on paper, but they do make a world of difference.
This episode is one of many poignant conversations, in which you feel the characters are often on the brink of tears (if they're not crying already). In addition to Momiji's interaction with Tohru in the later part of the episode, JO takes a single ambiguous panel of Tohru crying and turns it into a great piece of foreshadowing, as though she can sense what is coming without knowing what it means. We also get a lovely scene between Uo and Hana, talking about what Tohru means to them. It's beautifully acted by Victoria Olivier and Melle Teich, and leads very nicely onto next week's episode.
For the most part, however, this episode is dominated by Momiji. Majorikku is absolutely sensational this time out, dealing with a lot of long speeches but imbuing them with naturalism and a deep-rooted sadness, tempered only by a sense of distant loyalty. The whole reveal of his backstory is achingly sad, not just in the actual story but the tender, sensitive way in which it's being told. Heather McDonald is also great here, particularly given that crying on cue is trickly, let alone for such long periods.
The production of this episode is also fantastic, and helps us appreciate the few lighter moments that occur. The cops and robbers sequence features a number of really good extras, and the imagined encounter between Kyo and Kyoko is very well-realised. On a darker note, JO utilises echo very well in this episode, adding portent to the flashbacks and creating a deafening silence when Momiji's mother first appears. There's an almost ghostly feel to this episode which causes it to linger for a long time afterwards.

Here, then, is Episode 23 for your enjoyment (and heartbreak). Don't forget to download last week's episode as an mp3 via the link below - you may need a big dose of Ayame to counter-act the tears. Join me next week when we'll be rounding off Volume 4 with the final episode that has aired to date. See you then...
Download Episode 22 - Halfway here

NEXT WEEK: Episode 24 - Still Sleeping

Friday, 4 April 2014

WHATCULTURE!: Jennifer Connelly

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For my third WhatCulture! article in as many weeks, I'm turning my attention to the career of Jennifer Connelly, who returns to our screens this weekend in Darren Aronofsky's Noah. Connelly has enjoyed quite an illustrious career to date, and based upon the work I have listed here I would go so far as to call her one of my favourite actresses.
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You can read my article on Connelly here. If you've not yet read my articles on Pierce Brosnan and Robert Redford, you can find them here and here respectively. Enjoy!

Daniel

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

ADMIRABLE FAILURES: The Monuments Men (2014)

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The Monuments Men (Germany/ USA, 2014)
Directed by George Clooney
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman

Ever since the credit crunch broke six years ago, there have been clarion calls from the artistic community in Britain about the need to preserve funding for the arts. Social media has been awash in recent times with 'I Value The Arts' twibbons and Winston Churchill's widely misquoted line. Contrary to popular belief, he did not say "then what are we fighting for?" when asked to cut the arts to support the war, but instead advised that paintings and other priceless works should be buried in caves.
 
All of which brings us to The Monuments Men, a film set in World War II in which the arts are no longer seen as a priority. The film repeatedly proclaims the importance of preserving and celebrating Western art and culture, arguing like contemporary campaigners that they reflect our humanity, our creativity and our capacity for good. Ultimately the film is a flimsy, stuffy affair with none of the current campaigns' dynamism, but it is still enjoyable enough to pass the time.
 
The big problem facing The Monuments Men, as so often in war dramas, is one of tone. It can't decide whether it wants to be a properly dramatic war film like A Bridge Too Far, full of good, honest men doing good, honest things, or a caper film like Ocean's Eleven or to some extent Inglourious Basterds, playing faster and looser with the truth. Only Soldier of Orange manages to somehow balance the two, and this falls far short of Paul Verhoeven's film.
 
Much of the explanation for this lies with the director; in so many ways, George Clooney is no Paul Verhoeven. He's not a bad director, insofar as he knows how to assemble a shot and light a scene in an appealing way. And there's no denying the admirable intentions behind his work, as previously demonstrated in Good Night and Good Luck. The problem is that his passion for an idea or subject matter comes across in a heavy-handed way.
 
Clooney's biggest fault as a director is constantly drawing attention to the message he is delivering, rather than letting the drama speak for itself. In Good Night and Good Luck, he did this by including stock footage of the real Joseph McCarthy ranting about communism. If Clooney were so confident that his film would work as a paean to 'proper' journalism and common sense, he would not have felt the need to have this footage of McCarthy to constantly remind us who the bad guy is.
 
It's much the same story with The Monuments Men, which gives us a compelling thesis and then somewhat squanders it through the kind of didactic scripting that would make Oliver Stone proud. The basic idea is a very interesting one, namely that the artistic values of a culture or nation must not be sacrificed for the sake of short-term political or military gain. But the idea is conveyed less through character development than through characters making speeches about it, with said speeches often interrupting the enjoyable action.
The Monuments Men explores an interesting phase of World War II, namely when it became a question of 'when' Germany would surrender, rather than 'if'. With the goal of their united campaign in sight, the different Allied nations were already looking ahead towards the potential fall-out of the surrender. There was a big race to be the first to reach Berlin, which through a series of unfortunate events eventually led to the Cold War. Arguably military leaders were more ruthless in this period than at any other period during the war, as epitomised by Hitler's own Nero Decree.
Seen through this prism, the film is a document of the nobler side of Man's nature in extremis. While it's sympathetic towards the ends of the Allies, it challenges the means by which Germany is being defeated. Clooney's men are seen to be fighting for a higher cause amongst the short-term barbarism of the field commanders. Matt Damon's character spends much of his time trying to challenge America's image as a careless conqueror, an image that extends from its army to its art collectors.
 
But again, there's a problem. While it is refreshing to have a bunch of characters who are not cynical in nature or in action, they are not written well enough to make them feel like anything more then vessels for speeches. Aside from Damon's relationship with Cate Blanchett and the tragic fates of Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin, it is very difficult to tell the characters apart. Blanchett herself is somewhat off the boil, with her French accent comically slipping on more than one occasion.
 
As a result, it becomes difficult to enjoy The Monuments Men as anything more than an old-school romp like The Dirty Dozen, in which a lot of famous people run around stiffing Nazis and Russians. There is a certain amount of pleasure to be wrought out of John Goodman getting his gun off - just look at his performance in The Big Lebowski. And as a film about older men being put in combat situations, it's a damn sight funnier and more entertaining than The Expendables.
 
The film also boasts better cinematography than many of the old-school romps that it eventually resembles. Phedon Papamichael is best known for his work with Alexander Payne on Sideways and Nebraska, but he also has form in period works, having lensed the remake of 3:10 to Yuma and Walk The Line. Some of the exterior shots are exquisite, such as the wide shot of the abandoned castle or the field in which Goodman and Dujardin are ambushed.
 
Credit should also go to the props department for recreating all the masterpieces that are referenced, including the joint MacGuffins of the Van Eyck altarpiece and Michelangelo's Madonna and Child. Often in war films there is so much collatoral damage that the artistry of a particular building or object doesn't seem to matter, but here we are given the chance to appreciate the craft on offer. The scene inside the castle, featuring all the different sculptures, is one of the highlights in this regard.
 
Ultimately, however, there is only so much that visuals and humour can do to keep a story going. The speechifying nature of the characters reflects the fact that the narrative keeps needing a shot in the arm, being unfocussed and needlessly meandering as it follows the different groups of characters. Like Nixon before it, it is a film of enjoyable moments which struggles to connect them either convincingly or compellingly.
 
The Monuments Men is an admirable failure from Clooney which comes to us with the best intentions and falls well short of expectations. Clooney's right-on credentials aren't in doubt, and as a modern-day take on old-school war films, it's reasonably entertaining. But its lack of character depth, coupled with the odd bad performance, prevent it from being anything more than forgettable fun. You won't rush to destroy it afterwards, but there won't be much call for preserving it either. 

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NEXT REVIEW: Ghostbusters (1984)