Friday, February 7, 2014


Opening this weekend:

The Monuments Men—It’s worth remembering that the Nazis weren’t just murderers, they were also thieves, looting and hoarding the art treasures of the countries they occupied. Formed in 1943 to work against this shameless robbery was the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives program, known for short as the Monuments Men, a division of Allied forces made up of artists, restorers, collectors, architects and the like in charge of recovering and returning this incomparable booty.

Out of Robert M. Edsel’s acclaimed nonfiction book on this outfit’s intriguing exploits, George Clooney and cronies have crafted a throwback. The Monuments Men is sort of a benign, high-minded version of the facetious buddy-ensemble military actioners that were popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s, like The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Like those films, it’s not likely to be regarded as a piece of high cinematic art, and like those films, it’s relaxed and engaging—a guy movie for middle-aged gallery rats. The composer, Alexandre Desplat, even provides a jaunty march theme, a la The Great Escape.

Clooney co-produced and co-wrote the script with his frequent partner Grant Heslov (who has a small role as an army surgeon), and provided the easygoing direction. As an earnest MFAA Lieutenant, Clooney also leads his cast into battle, searching for such prizes as Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and the Van Eyck Ghent Altarpiece. His followers include Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville. It may be noted that most of these guys are a trifle long in the tooth for basic training, and Clooney doesn’t hesitate to use gray hair and paunches for their comic value.

But these actors are proven good company, and that’s what they add up to here. Murray and Balaban pair off into a mild comedy team, and Goodman and Dujardin show a pleasing rapport together as well. Damon is particularly good, managing a few sweet, wistful scenes with Cate Blanchett, as his Parisian contact who has secretly tracked the art’s destinations (her character is based on the marvelous real-life Resistance figure Rose Valland), without trying to turn them into feverish drama.

While recognizing its limitations, I enjoyed The Monuments Men a lot. It’s fascinating material, and the cast is tough to beat, and its old-fashioned feel carries, for guys of my age, a nice dose of nostalgia. But I think the real source of its charm may be that it begins as the war is ending—with the Nazis in ignominious retreat, and the shattered ruins of western Europe starting to take a breath. The very fact that the Allies could start worrying about getting art back to its owners was a sign that the good guys were winning.

Because of this, the lackadaisical pace that Clooney sets is almost a benefit. The Monuments Men is no monumental movie, but it’s suffused with a refreshing sense of day breaking after a long and horrible night.

The Lego Movie—Not only did I never have Lego building blocks as a kid, I don’t remember ever playing with them at school or at another kid’s house. Nor did I regard myself as especially deprived by this absence in my toy box. Thus I was an unlikely audience member for The Lego Movie, and thus I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud at a lot of this computer-animated kids' comedy-fantasy, and to walk out of it thinking that I seen something sort of brilliant, even slightly thought-provoking.

In the generic Lego city of Bricksburg, rank-and-file construction worker Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt, finds himself the object of a prophecy—he’s told he’s “The Special,” the “Master Builder” who can save the (Lego) universe from schemes of the tyrannical President Business (Will Ferrell). The trouble is that Emmet is an enthusiastic conformist who only wants to follow the instructions and fit in.

This leads to a fast-moving and highly complex, but as far as I could tell seamlessly-thought-out, adventure involving everybody from a wizard (Morgan Freeman) to a woman of action (Elizabeth Banks) to a “Unikitty” (unicorn/kitty hybrid) to licensed characters like Batman (Will Arnett, growling amusingly) Superman (Channing Tatum) and the Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) to a villainous Bad Cop with a kindly Good Cop on the other side of his swiveling head (both are voiced by Liam Neeson).

Much good comedy is derived from the limited range of motion possible for rigid Lego figures, and the dialogue is witty too. Yet the movie manages, without so much as a wisp of pretentiousness, to hint at some troubling allegorical resonances about conformity and creativity in human society. The whole thing, if you’ll excuse my saying so, snaps together nicely.

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