Review – I May Not Know Art, But I Know When It Sucks (“Monuments Men”)

George Clooney, putting on his Bartholomew Cubbins hat (look it up) has again given us another movie based on another real-life event. Taken from the book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History”, by Robert M. Edsel, Clooney adapted the screenplay (with Grant Heslov), co-produced, directed, and stars in this WW2-kinda actioner about American art historians turned soldiers and stealing back paintings and art work stolen by the Nazis.

It’s the tail end of the war and the Der Fuehrer wants art – lots of art – to fill his proposed massive art museum in Austria, so he’s stealing it all over Europe and hiding it somewhere… but in case of his death or the Allies winning, his orders (called the “Nero Decree”) are to destroy everything! Yeah, he was certifiable all right.

Back in the U.S., art conservationistLt. Frank Stokes (Clooney) convinces President Roosevelt that he and a small, rag-tag group of art historians go in to occupied Germany and steal it back. Faster than you can say, “Assemble the team!”, Frank assembles his team: best friend Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon) a Harvard art historian, architect Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman), French specialist <span Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), art connoisseurPvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and British specialist <span iLt. Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville). Saddle up, men!

Meanwhile, in occupied Paris, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett–apparently they ran out of French actresses), a curator and secretary, is forced to allow Nazi officer Viktor Stahl (Justus VonDohnanyi) to oversee the theft of art for Hitler. Once word comes down about the Nazi's leaving France, Stahl takes off with all the stolen goods and Claire, being thought a Nazi sympathizer, is then arrested.

The newly christened "Monuments Men" arrive in France and split up in teams to search for stolen stuff and from here, as in much of the movie, the plot line skewers like one of Doc Brown's multiple timelines. We have Granger in France freeing a captive Claire to help locate Stahl's stolen art, which she's skeptical to do. There's the unlikely team of Campbell and Savitz who don't take to each other at first, but become fast friends later. Garfield and Clermont who are nearly killed under sniper fire and are later brought together by someone's death. Then there's lone wolf Jeffries, who has a passion for Michelangelo's Madonna and Child statue, and risks his life for trying to save it later.

Just as things are going bad, they get worse: It seems that the Russians are after the same art, claiming THEY want monetary restitution, AND the war is official called off, so Hitler’s Nero Decree is to be carried out. Stymied at every corner and losing some men in the process of locating the artwork, they finally stumble upon the Nazi’s hiding secret: mines! They hid everything in different salt, copper, and other mines! Bolstered by this, they find most of the hidden art (not to mention 100 tons of Germany’s gold bullion reserve) at a few of the mines, while the Nazis in occupied Germany destroyed the rest. Back in France, Claire finally puts her trust in Granger, and gives him her hidden logbook of Stahl’s stolen artwork and the secret location of an untouched castle where it’s all stored.

In the end, most of the art (sculptures, paintings, etc.) is rescued as Stokes tells President Truman that saving the world’s art from total annihilation was well worth the risk and even the loss of some of his men.

I Wikipedia’d the real story about the Monuments Men and I think that a History Channel doc on the subject would have been just as interesting. Clooney does a justifiable job as director, but his screenplay is all over the map. There are so many multiple stories of the teams at work in various parts of Germany or France, that it starts to become tedious to watch and keep up with who’s where and why they’re there. Then there’s the lack of any real action. It’s almost dull at times if weren’t for the gentile humor of the actors, who fit the bill well and play off each other with obvious rapport. But then again you get scenes filled with great emotion like Bill Murray listening to his family on a 45rpm record from home which is just heart-warming and a wonderful interrogation scene with Clooney and VonDohnanyi.

Unlike Clooney’s 2011 masterful “Ides of March” which he, like this movie, pulled triple duty on, “Monuments Men” lacks the emotional depth or the balls-out action/adventure that a WW2 movie would generate. It’s a nice movie for the older generation to see on a Sunday afternoon who are tired of massive explosions, graphic violence, overt nudity, F-bombs galore, and want an innocent throwback flick for themselves to watch. On those points, you can’t miss with this movie!

KELLY’S HEROES (1970)

You gotta love a war movie that has Donald Sutherland in it as a tank driver named “Oddball” who barks like a dog. Starting with a flavorful and witty screenplay by British film and television writer Troy Kennedy Martin (who also wrote the original robbery caper “The Italian Job“,) this terrific movie stars a plethora of named stars and has a memorable soundtrack starting with the title song, “Burning Bridges,” sung by The Mike Curb Congregation. The driving score, by Lalo Schifrin, was SO popular that Quentin Tarantino even used parts of it in his “Inglourious Basterds” movie.

The movie, shot on location in Croatia (before all the unpleasantness) has us in WW2 France where a small, rag-tag division of mechanized reconnaissance platoons receives orders to pull out. Former Lt. Kelly (Clint Eastwood), has a captured German officer who has a stolen gold bar in his satchel. Kelly learns from him that there is a cache of 14,000 German stolen gold bars in an unprotected bank vault some 30 miles behind enemy lines in the French town of Clermont.

Kelly recruits his platoon to sneak off and steal the gold, including Sgt. “Big Joe” (Telly Savalas), Pvt. “Little Joe” (Stuart Margolin), Pvt. Willard (Harry Dean Stanton), a sleezy procurement officer named “Crapgame” (Don Rickles), and the slightly-off Sherman tank commander, Sgt. “Oddball” (Sutherland) among others. The group, eager for what seems e-z pickins, take off for the spoils of war, but it’s not gonna be that easy! There’s a German-held town they have to break through, a strafing run by a mistaken American pilot, forcing them to continue on foot, and three of them die in a hidden minefield. Meanwhile, Kelly’s troops are brought to the attention of nutty gung-ho American Major General Colt (Carroll O’Connor–doing his pre-Archie Bunker routine here), and he misinterprets them as heroes of the war showing great initiative!

Finally, with the town and bank in site, problem # 17 arises: it’s defended by three German Tiger tanks with infantry support! NUTS! After a tension-filled fire-fight, all the Germans are dead except one, and Kelly offers the last German tank commander detente and a share of the loot. Greed, it seems, overcomes a fear of death. It works and, after dividing the gold, the men go their separate ways, just managing to avoid meeting Major Colt, who is delayed by the celebrating town residents.

A wickedly fun movie with dollops of drama and comedy and smidgen of a “War is Hell” message thrown in for good measure, Brian G. Hutton directed this classic gem and had already directed Eastwood in his 1968 WW2 movie, “Where Eagles Dare“, so he knew his stuff. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, this movie has all the earmarks of an “essential” movie you must have in your film collection.  Also, this movie has a distinction for having NO females in it! Oh sure, there’s the general background French girls at the end, but no lead females at all, even though one was written it and then cut at the last minute. Also, see if you can find actor, writer, and future “Blues Brothers” director John Landis running around as a soldier.

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