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The Monuments Men - review

Apr 1, 2014 Film & TV

Given the rich and dramatic heritage of war movies, and given silver screen playboy George Clooney can produce elegant and absorbing movies like as Good Night, and Good Luck, how did he take one of the most fascinating World War II stories yet to be told and misfire this badly?

Based on the extensive research of author Robert M Edsel, The Monuments Men tells the true story of a team of art experts who were enlisted in a last-ditch effort to rescue thousands of precious cultural treasures that had either been stolen by Hitler’s army, or were perilously close to destruction by Allied Forces as they closed in on the Führer.

Adolf was an art school drop-out, don’t forget. Unable to make a name for himself in the field, he had dreams of filling a Führermuseum with Europe’s riches. We’re talking significant works by Vermeer, Picasso, Rodin, Rembrandt, the Ghent Altarpiece and many, many more.

Not that Clooney gives us a moment to really look at any of these masterpieces. The Monuments Men is a film about art that’s almost artless, something that’s telegraphed by the pomp-and-cheese music that yells at you, “THE NAZIS ARE COMING! THE NAZIS ARE COMING!” We’re supposed to understand that the job of the Monuments Men is, you know, super important, courtesy of a series of sentimental speeches by Clooney’s cipher of a character, an art historian based on a much more interesting real-life guy. Just show us the art, man.

This hot mess is entertaining in parts, thanks to the constellation of stars on screen. Bill Murray has fun as an architect who is teamed with the delightful Bob Balaban in an Odd Couple pairing that hits a few potholes along the way, but pays off by the end. (One hilarious visual moment: Murray’s character appears to have been lugging a comfy bathrobe around in his wartime luggage all this time.)

The Earl of Grantham shows up as a boozer sent to rescue Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, while Jean Dujardin has a lovely moment with a horse as handsome as he. Meanwhile, we’re expected to believe that Clooney’s Ocean’s Eleven buddy Matt Damon is a medieval art expert. Actually I’m okay with that; what I didn’t buy was his rejecting the advances of Cate Blanchett’s gorgeous, brittle French spy.

What most of the cast struggle with is a script that doesn’t know whether it’s a caper comedy or anti-Nazi polemic. It’s possible to be both, of course: Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful is the gold standard here. But Clooney doesn’t seem to trust the tone of his film, and the script is peppered with pointless asides like, “Be careful with those paintings!” Well, duh.

At least the film’s topic is relevant. The Monuments Men may have been WWII art superheroes, but the work they started is never quite finished, not when our culture still suffers the looting and destruction of treasures in Iraq and Egypt and Syria, and those magnificent Buddhas of Bamiyan (RIP).

A side note: The Monuments Men and the recent Geoffrey Rush stinker The Book Thief may be the last WWII films we see for a while, as the world readies for the 100th anniversary of World War One.

With Anzac Day approaching, it’s worth revisiting the great movies to have come out of that terrible war. Start with the trench slapstick of Charlie Chaplin’s 1918 comedy Shoulder Arms ­– it’s free on the Internet. For the German perspective, take in All Quiet on the Western Front, featuring real-life war veterans as extras. Then re-watch Peter Weir’s heartbreaking Gallipoli, starring a handsome young Mel Gibson before the crazy set in.

Follow these with Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, the epic Lawrence of Arabia and the melodramatic A Farewell to Arms (the original Helen Hayes version). Finally, here’s hoping that a cinema or television network near you will screen the homegrown Gallipoli film Chunuk Bair, based on Maurice Shadbolt’s classic play (which itself is coming soon to the Maidment Theatre, courtesy of Auckland Theatre Company).


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