I guess it’s one thing to rescue great works of art from the grips of the Nazis, it’s another to make a great movie about it. Tina Fey’s joke about George Clooney should’ve been about him still floating in space while he was directing The Monuments Men instead of escaping Sandra Bullock—that would’ve been more believable.
So yes, I knew something was terribly wrong with this film when it was moved from the coveted December (Oscar race) slot last year to the dreaded February (death march) slot this year, but who knew a George Clooney-directed movie based on a best-selling book about retrieving stolen art from the Nazis starring Clooney himself, along with Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett and Hugh Bonneville could go so devastatingly off course? The Monuments Men is not only off-course, it feels like it’s actually playing on the entirely wrong field. I have no idea what co-writers Clooney and Grant Heslov (based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter) were even thinking when they wrote this screenplay, which comes off as a literal M*A*S*H-up of Ocean’s Eleven, Hogan’s Heroes and Saving Private Ryan, with dashes of every buddy movie ever seen thrown in for good measure.
The tone of this film is so completely all over the place, I had no idea whether to laugh, cry, be tense, nervous or anxious from any single moment to the next. And I seriously don’t think the actors or the filmmakers had any idea, either. The only actor playing with any stakes at all here was Blanchett, who quite literally seems like she’s in another movie altogether. Everyone else is playing some sort of army play-camp game and Clooney is their Scout leader.
The subject here is so rife with potential and the story is a most fascinating one: the biggest treasure hunt in history, to salvage cultural and historical artifacts and to preserve artworks that are priceless, this is a monumental story that deserves to be told. But it’s clear from the start that Clooney and Heslov are lost, they seem so concerned with keeping their audience entertained, as if talking about art for two hours will lose us, so they feel the need to pander by turning this into some sort of silly buddy movie of the lowest common denominator. Nothing works here, absolutely nothing, and the constant shifts in tone are jarring at best.
Add to it the cheesy dialogue, poor editing, and by far the worst score I have ever heard from the normally genius Alexandre Desplat, and I can easily say The Monuments Men is the first major disappointment of 2014. Of course, it is February—I have only myself to blame.
-I guess the Academy hated Saving Mr. Banks. No Best Picture nomination. No Best Supporting Actor nomination and—the biggest surprise of all—no Best Actress nomination. Wow.
-Relative to that, it seems clear that the soft, tender-hearted Academy that nominated Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and awarded Best Picture to The King’s Speech over The Social Network and The Artist over Moneyball is long gone. The clear favorites this morning were The Wolf of Wall Street (5 nominations) and American Hustle (10 nominations), two movies so loaded with testosterone that theatres serve the popcorn with pine tar instead of butter. And the movie previously thought to be an Academy home run: Saving Mr. Banks? Shut out of all the major categories—just one nomination, for Original Score. Remember when the Oscars loved to honor movies about movies and Hollywood? Like…the last two years? Looks like it’s a whole new Academy. One that prefers spoonfuls of cocaine over sugar.
-Speaking of a whole new Academy, it feels like a whole new Hollywood. It seems Tom Hanks doesn’t own the town anymore. He may not even rent here anymore. Poor guy got shut out twice today of categories he was thought to be locks for. And the guy was campaigning hard, too. No nod for him for Captain Phillips or for Saving Mr. Banks. Seems the ‘90s really are over.
-However, don’t get me started on the joke that nominating Meryl Streep has become. While I haven’t seen August: Osage County, I have heard she does nothing but chew the scenery and yet she gets an Oscar nomination for Best Actress over….Emma Thompson, who delivers a subtle and brilliant (and universally critically acclaimed) performance in Saving Mr. Banks. It’s pretty clear where I stand on this one, but this was my WTF moment of the day. I mean, come on. This has got to stop.
-WTF moment #2: the nominations of Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) and Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) for Best Supporting Actor. These inclusions were clearly signs of the popularity of their movies, because neither performance deserved to even be in the conversation, let alone be nominated, especially over a performance such as Daniel Brühl’s in Rush. I am appalled and disgusted. But notice I didn’t say surprised.
Leonardo DiCaprio has said he’s taking a break from making movies for a while. After watching The Wolf of Wall Street, I have to tell you, I don’t blame him. Sitting through this 3-hour adrenaline rush of a movie almost made me want to take a break from movies for a while, too.
Director Martin Scorsese’s black comedy based on 1980’s stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s rise and fall is a drug-laden, profanity-laced, high-speed trip that has all of the same stylistic hallmarks of Scorsese’s masterpiece Goodfellas, but none of its depth, character development or flow. Instead, The Wolf of Wall Street is just a relentless barrage of uninteresting characters doing reprehensible things at high volumes and numbing pace. I understand that Scorsese is interested in satire here and the comic effect is attempted to be achieved by overdoing it and making these characters ugly, I get that. But satire only works if you keep your audience engaged enough to pay attention to the point you are trying to get across. The Wolf of Wall Street is only interested in the ego of its main character, Jordan Belfort, on whose autobiography the movie is based. How am I supposed to care about a character I despise from the first second I lay eyes on him? If that’s the point, then mission accomplished. Where we go from there, I have no clue, because you lost me at hello.
I won’t lie and say that there aren’t moments in The Wolf of Wall Street that entertained me. I mean, how couldn’t there be? It’s a three hour movie about guys snorting cocaine off naked bodies and grown men acting like idiots and Leonardo DiCaprio getting high, wearing expensive suits and blowing his career roof off by playing every single scene at full tilt. I was exhausted just watching him. And the poor guy is already acting from inside a hole, considering he’s completely miscast for this role. The guy still looks 16 and we’re supposed to buy him as a Wall Street shark who takes over the world? I’ll give him his props, though, he works his butt off and gives it his all, even though it just never rings true.
As for the rest of the movie, the problem isn’t the casting as much as it is everything else. It is just too much. The ‘80s were about excess, we get it. Scorsese is about as subtle as a hammer to the head. If there could have been some variance in tone, some downshifting, some real moments, that would have been refreshing, but, instead, the entire movie feels like a joke, intentional and over-the-top, and we’re the suckers who are being taken for a ride.
Enjoy your last laugh, Leo, you earned it.
Does anyone remember the movie The Net, from 1995? It was a movie that starred Sandra Bullock about a woman whose identity was stolen and entire life erased and changed by bad guys on computers. I don’t think the movie did very well because nobody took it seriously—you can’t have all your information live inside a computer, that’s not realistic! Who knew then how far ahead of its time The Net really was. Technology is moving so fast now that I wouldn’t be surprised if the world of The Matrix turned out to be true someday.
There have been many movies about technology and how it impacts our lives, for better or worse, and the most recent of these is writer/director Spike Jonze’s latest effort, Her. In the simplest terms, Her is set in the not-too-distant future and is about Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who falls in love with the voice of his operating system. The OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is intuitive and is designed to “evolve” and respond and adapt to the user, making for a personal-seeming relationship, which allows Theodore, who is lonely and trying to get over a recent painful divorce, to make an emotional attachment that he has been reluctant and unable to make since his breakup. The OS, named Samantha, is everything Theodore could want: helping him to organize his life, a good listener, making him laugh, and genuinely interested in everything he has to say. When he freely admits that he’s fallen in love with his OS to a friend, the news is not greeted with shock and a trip to the looney bin, but, rather, an invitation to a double date, because, after all, this is the future, where falling in love with our operating systems seems to be the norm.
I’ll be honest, I’m not a big David O. Russell fan. I didn’t hate or love Three Kings or The Fighter, but I didn’t get the popularity of Silver Linings Playbook either and I absolutely despised I Heart Huckabees. I think that Russell makes movies that are performance and style-driven—not that there’s anything wrong with that—which tend to make them actor-heavy and story-light. I find he’s a director who’s very aware and conscious of his own voice and his ego doesn’t allow him to make any movie in a quiet way. You know how Tom Cruise has to run in every movie he’s in? I feel like a David O. Russell movie has to have a hyperactivity to it in that same way, almost like a signature—or an insecurity. Silver Linings Playbook’s dialogue was so rat-a-tat I felt like I was watching it in fast-forward. So I was prepared for his new movie, American Hustle, to be bombastic, especially when I learned the subject matter was the world of New Jersey con artists and was loosely based on the true story of the ‘70s Abscam scandal.
In all the noise of the movies at the multiplex this season, between the special-effects movies vying for your 3D-dollars and the big-cast ensembles competing for the spoils of awards season, let’s try not to step on the occasional little gem that creeps in this time of year. You know the ones: the movies with heart, soul and story. Well, I’ve got one for you: Philomena.
Philomena could easily have been a made-for-television movie of the week. It is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish nurse who, as a teenage girl in 1950’s Catholic Ireland, had been disowned by her parents when she became pregnant out of wedlock. Sent to live at the local abbey, Philomena was coerced into signing away her baby by the nuns, who never told her what happened to her son, or ever allowed her to find out who adopted him. The movie is set 50 years later as Philomena’s grown daughter seeks the assistance of a British journalist, Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, to help Philomena, played by Judi Dench, track down her son, who Philomena had never stopped thinking about since those tortured days at the abbey in Ireland when they were ripped apart from each other.
There aren’t many movies that leave me speechless. Or breathless. In fact, Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, Gravity, felt like it sucked every vital organ out of my body for 90 minutes, except for my eyes and ears—the only ones it needed—and those it held in glorious captivity throughout one of the most compelling, if not the most visually stunning cinematic experiences I’ve had.
The basics: Gravity is set in space and stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who play two astronauts who must try to survive an accident that destroys their space station while they are literally floating in space, orbiting Earth. I myself was dubious as to how a full-length movie was going to sustain on a premise of floating in space (I mean, what else is there to do, really, out there), but every doubt I had evaporated from the first moment. To say this film is an immersive experience is to understate its power, its beauty and its transcendence. Do not be concerned with what it’s about or whether you might be bored by it or whether it might be too scary or how it’s been marketed. None of that matters.
What matters is everything between the credits. Everything that is the experience of this film.
It may be a space movie, it may not have the strongest story or the most riveting (if much at all) dialogue, or character development, but what Gravity lacks in traditional narrative elements, it more than makes up for in the most fluidly arresting visual storytelling I’ve ever seen on screen. I can’t remember the last time I was so absorbed by a film as I was by this one. The visual effects are so affecting, they just may make you gasp more than once and will certainly make your jaw drop. The details of the technical achievements don’t matter (although they are absolutely astounding), what matters is the end result and the result, for me, was and always is the experience. I love movies because of movies like Gravity. I love being drawn into another world (or, in this case, the world above our own), and living there—and believing it—for two hours, absorbed, captivated and emotionally entwined with it and the characters. And I’ll tell you another thing…I certainly don’t mind being in sheer awe of what I’m seeing either.
If you love movies, see Gravity. If you crave transcendent experiences that just may give you a whole new perspective on art, cinema, technology, humankind and our place in the universe, run to the nearest theatre that has the largest screen and the best sound system, wait for the next showing and just….breathe.
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