Movie Review – The Monuments Men; Labor Day

The Monuments Men poster

George Clooney’s The Monuments Men plays like a cross between Ocean’s 11 (either Clooney’s or Sinatra’s) and sixties commando adventures like The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare –only without the wisecracking humor of the former (again, either version) and the action-packed thrills that marked the latter films.

Clooney (who co-wrote and directed) plays an army lieutenant who assembles a group of art experts (curators, historians) to search for confiscated art and return them to their proper owners. Among his recruits are Matt Damon (another Ocean’s echo), Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin, while Cate Blanchett is a curator in occupied Paris secretly trying to thwart the Nazis from stealing her country’s artistic treasures. Along the way, this question is bandied about: is it worth risking human lives in order to rescue valuable artwork? You may have your thoughts on this, but the movie leaves no doubt as to what its opinion is, and this pretty much removes any complexity from the film (and renders a thirty years later, tacked-on coda pretty meaningless).

Yes, there are a number of entertaining and even moving moments in The Monuments Men, mainly due to the efforts of the powerhouse case, particularly Murray, Balaban, and Blanchett, yet even these talents don’t get enough to do. In addition, the movie meanders when it should move; there is little sense of urgency or danger. Case in point: at one pivotal moment in the movie the characters are told they have to leave because the Russians are coming. What do they do? Well…they leave. That’s all folks. This slackness extends throughout the whole movie: Clooney has to assemble his group in a hurry; he does with minimal fuss. We’re told that certain members are antagonistic toward each other, but we never know why; it’s just a given. Some characters have death written all over their faces (I won’t have to tell you who–you’ll know). Finally, and perhaps most prophetically, the film’s ostensibly rousing score (by the usually reliable and often inspired Alexandre Desplat) plays like warmed-over Frank DeVol circa The Dirty Dozen. I know film composers occasionally pay homage to other composers, but one should never steal from Frank DeVol—it’s just not worth it. In doing so, Desplat has diminished his own art; and Clooney, in largely foregoing wit, complexity, and excitement in telling this little-known story, has diminished his own artistry.

Note to film buffs: if you want to see a terrific, action-paced film that brings depth and ambivalence to the notion of sacrificing men for art’s sake, see John Frankheimer’s 1964 classic, The Train. Set in the waning days of World War Two, Burt Lancaster’s railway man wages what results in a one-man war against single-minded, art-obsessed Nazi officer Paul Scofield (who wants to confiscate a train and transport France’s artistic glories to Germany). The stakes are high, the issues addressed with intelligence and restraint, and the action sequences involving chases, bombings and train wrecks—with a 51 year old Lancaster doing all his own stunts—are astounding.

labor day ver2

Labor Day – or the Not-so Desperate Hours. Set in 1987 and narrated by Tobey Maguire, the movie stars Kate Winslet is a fragile, withdrawn single mother raising her thirteen year old son (Caitlin Griffith). Into their sheltered lives comes a not-so-threatening escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who persuades them to take him home, allow him to rest for the night, after which he’ll go on his way. The thing is…he’s mighty handy though, and before you know it, he’s fixing the car, doing some repairs around the house, and teaching them to make a peach pie. Did I mention that Winslet slowly falls for Brolin, and vice-versa? And that the young son is struggling to see where he fits in all this?

None of this should really work—and yet somehow it does. Labor Day as directed and written by Jason Reitman (from Joyce Maynard’s book) slowly but surely weaves a spell on the unsuspecting viewer. The frequent but spare flashbacks add to the sense of mystery without disrupting the flow. Brolin and Winslet are quietly convincing as two scarred souls who look to each other for their salvation. Rolfe Kent’s evocative music gently underscores the narrative’s emotional twists and turns. As Winslet’s ex-husband, Clark Gregg has some nice moments when his character admits to his own shortcomings. Labor Day won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s probably the most successfully realized romantic movie that’s out in cinemas right now.