Monuments Men: an admirable flop?

the-monuments-men-reviews-george-clooneys-delayed-nazi-art-movie-isnt-that-greatIf George Clooney has a passion project there’s a fair chance it will get made. He’ll recruit a good cast and pick a good story to tell. All these things you can consider crossed off. Done. Dusted. This time round he chose to adapt a book: The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel.

The plot, if you’re not familiar, is based on this true story. Ah, a dangerous Hollywood caveat you may cry, for ‘based on’ and what actually happened are often two very different things. But before we get to that, the story as it stands.

Near the end of WWII Frank Stokes (Clooney) persuades US President Roosevelt to let him put together a team to recover works of art stolen by the Nazis, then return said works to the rightful owners. As it’s based on a true story – one that’s crying out to be retold (having been told, in part, in other films before) – you can see why Clooney jumped on it.

It’s a noble and important part of history, one which hasn’t particularly been addressed in modern cinema. It’s also – potentially – epic in scope too. Beautiful locations, with an exciting dramatic need that drives our main characters; a ragtag bunch of unlikely heroes that they are. The pieces are all in place.George Clooney;Matt Damon;John Goodman;Bob Balaban
So… what do we get? A drama? A comedy? A caper? Well, none of these really. Or bits of all of them, depending on your point of view.

It begins with a montage of Art Curators Assemble!, with Stokes putting together an ageing team which, on casting, look to mostly be there for comedy purposes: Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman etc. The trailer too, suggests a ‘caper’; Ocean’s Eleven with Nazis or Saving Private Ryan the comedy years perhaps? Puts me in mind of a running gag in ‘Allo ‘Allo! which focused on the Nazis and the French Resistance attempting to keep hold of ‘The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies’ by Van Klomp. So it’s a comedy right? Well, no. Not exactly.

What we actually get is a rather plodding and inert tale of a bunch of guys that – upon finding they’ll get no help from superior officers in the field – decide to attempt to protect and recover the art largely on their lonesome. Nothing wrong with that you might say. But it’s tackled in such a pedestrian way that, as a viewer, you find yourself desperate for some jeopardy. Tanks, guns, evil Nazis… something.monuments_men
Perhaps part of the problem is that the main cast spend precious little time together. Once in France they split up and head off across Europe on various missions. It’s not all doom and gloom, there’s some good scenes along the way and the cast do what they can with the moments they have, but it just feels languid and, ultimately, unengaging.

And, as is the way with Hollywood butchering history, there’s a fairly heavy focus on Americans saving the day, largely ignoring the real life efforts by the British in this project. But we’re used to that, and could forgive this lapse if the script had some zip and vigour about it.

Despite all that, it’s important this film was made and the story was told. But maybe a TV miniseries would have given these characters room to breathe. This approach worked incredibly well for Band of Brothers. I guess we’ll never know now… but hats off to Clooney for an admirable effort.

Buckle up for a Flight with Whip Whitaker

whip whitakerHow time flies! It’s hard to believe it’s been 13 years since Robert Zemeckis last directed a live-action movie in Castaway. A film that involved a monumental plane crash in the first act and had a compelling male lead wrestling with his mental demons. Loneliness and survival in the case of Tom Hanks, alcoholism and addiction in the case of Denzel Washington.

In those terms, both Castaway and Flight share similarities and perhaps represent a return to form for Zemeckis. That’s not to say he’s been idle in the past 13 years. As a Director, he’s been one of the strongest advocates for motion-capture, with The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. Those films paving the way for more expansive film-makers to embrace the medium. I’m thinking Cameron, Jackson, Spielberg and so on.

What goes up must come down

There’s a short version of the plot knocking around the internet, which basically says that airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) saves a plane from crashing with some astonishing skill and bravery, flight1but an investigation into malfunctions on the plane reveal mysterious and troubling news.

This is misleading. Within the first 10 minutes it’s clear the story revolves around addiction, particularly alcohol in the case of Whitaker. You could argue the fact the film kicks off with a spectacular action sequence on a plane is merely a device to frame Whip’s struggle with alcoholism and addiction. That said, it makes for a more compelling setting for our anti-hero. Someone responsible for hundreds of lives.

Washington and the dark side

Ok, let’s cut to the chase. This is hands-down, Washington’s best performance since Training Day in 2001. Granted, Man on Fire and American Gangster were good, but his performance here fully justifies the Oscar nomination he received.

flight hearingEarlier I mentioned similarities between Castaway and Flight that, no doubt in part, drew Zemeckis to the script. If we continue to look for patterns it’s safe to say Washington must have drawn a few parallels between corrupt Detective Alonzo and alcoholic pilot Whip.

It’s clear Washington figured out some time ago that anti-heroes are far more fun to play and come much easier to him as characters. There’s something about his natural charisma and screen presence, combined with his darker nature, that really sparks on screen. So much so that he’s quietly become an expert at tapping into these characters, firmly seizing the parts when they come around.

Come fly with me

In terms of supporting cast: Whilst in the hospital recovering from his plane crash, Whip befriends a beautiful woman, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who is also an addict. whip and nicole flightReilly as the love interest/friend plays her small part well, reminding me a little of the type of characters Amy Adams plays from time to time. Diamond-in-the-rough types.

In a film that’s perhaps a little weighty (understandable given the subject matter) it’s lifted by lighter moments, particularly any scenes involving Whip’s dealer Harling (John Goodman). Lumbering in at key moments like a doped up leviathan, he steals every scene. Following Argo, it seems Goodman is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, revelling in those slightly-longer-than-cameo parts.

All in all, Flight is a commendable return to live-action from Zemeckis, with a towering, captivating performance from Washington. A little long in places – like so many movies these days – but with a heady mix of drama and action that should more than satisfy.

[Interesting links]
Total Film’s 50 greatest movie anti-heroes | Denzel Washington and Aaron Paul – drunk talk

Argo, Affleck and a hard-hitting Hollywood tale

ben affleck

I saw Argo the other night and thought it was great. Really tense throughout, with a few lighter moments to keep from getting too heavy. I said as much to friends and got told rather firmly that the film was historically inaccurate and missed the point.

When I queried this I was told it didn’t fully explore the political situation behind the stand-off between Iran and the US. Whilst this may be true, I’m not sure that matters too much. I’ll explain why. But first, the plot.

The Hollywood option
Set in revolutionary Iran in 1979, the story focuses on six American diplomats forced to flee their embassy and take refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s house. CIA ex-filtration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to orchestrate their escape, by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo.

If this were just a film, most people would probably avoid it with a story this ludicrous, but it’s true. This was a proper CIA-sanctioned mission – that’s what makes it so compelling. To return to the comments my friends made about the film’s inaccuracies, Hollywood is known for butchering history – often in a spectacular way. Or twisting it to suit its own means.

Let’s face it, films based on true stories are often going to upset somebody. Maybe they’re inaccurate, maybe they’ve left out key facts. Sometimes the facts don’t make a great film or there are too many characters for the story to be focused enough.

First and foremost, film-makers are trying to make something that’s going to appeal to as many people as possible. The more controversial the material, the more it’s going to be a challenge. Anyway, lesson over, let’s look at the film.

Affleck the A-list….Director
Never thought you’d hear that one right? This is his third film as Director, following the critically-acclaimed Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Both tense, dramatic and well-told stories in a realistic setting.

Also both were set in Boston. So many – including myself – were interested to see if he could deliver the same type of suspenseful film not just in another location, but way outside the US. In a way, the stabilisers are off and he’s wobbling down the street on his own. With a good measure of success.

As well as displaying a deft touch as Director – balancing drama with comedy moments – his acting is also solid and unfussy. Casting himself as lead character Tony Mendez, he comes across as a relatively inscrutable, stoic protagonist – yet has the self-awareness to be the calm centre of the storm, allowing other characters to spin around him.

A cosmic conflagration
He also gets some great performances out of the supporting cast which included: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy and Bryan Cranston. argo poster - by conception studiosArkin and Goodman were on top form, poking fun at the inner workings of the Hollywood machine with some great lines. Goodman to Affleck, ‘You want to come to Hollywood and act all fake like a big shot? You’ll fit right in.’

It’s never going to be an easy task to tell a tale this complex, however I think Affleck pulls it off. This is a tense, concise, well-told story, cleverly cut with a satirical nod towards Hollywood, but kept grounded by a level-headed Director who’s going from strength to strength. It may not please everyone from a historical point of view, but it’s a darn good film nonetheless.

Ben Affleck: a directorial phoenix emerges!

the town

I’ve had a disastrous morning. Not the most upbeat way to start a post, but hang in there. I dropped a full jar of honey on the floor which shattered. Honey and glass is impossible to clean up. Then banged my heel in the shower, spilt hot tea on my leg, lost half my breakfast in the toaster – the part I salvaged I managed to push off my plate onto the table with aggressive cutting!

And so, on to this post. As you might guess it’s about Affleck’s rise from the ashes of an acting career to become a directorial force to be reckoned with – much to the surprise of many. The reason for mentioning my morning mishaps is I hope this piece becomes my salvation – that I rise from the flames resplendent, with no more disasters for the rest of the day. I want to become the phoenix! Ahem, let’s move on.

So last night I watched Gone Baby Gone – another ‘been on my list for a while’ film. As expected, it’s really good. I’ve ended up watching the films Affleck has directed in reverse order, having seen The Town a while ago. Both are set in Boston and deal with crime and family. Both are brilliant – suspenseful, thrilling and wholly engrossing throughout.

gone baby goneGone Baby Gone (2007)
If you’ve not seen this, it’s a crime mystery drama based on a book by Dennis Lehane – author of two other titles that have been turned into impressive films, Mystic River and Shutter Island. The latter superbly directed by Scorsese and features a career-high performance by DiCaprio.

In terms of plot, it features Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother) as a private investigator hired to find a missing girl. Faced with the challenges of working with distrustful cops (Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman), drug dealers and other lowlifes – his relationship with his co-worker and partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) becomes strained as the investigation progresses. There are twists, turns and revelations and, whilst the plot is complex, it’s worth paying attention to the end.

Affleck (senior) gives the Boston setting a grittiness and believability and gets a great performance out his younger brother. Who said siblings can’t work together? I’ve had my doubts about Casey Affleck, he’s always seemed quite a closed book in terms of being an expressive actor. Now I understand his appeal. He gives a truly impressive performance, particularly showing suppressed emotion – one of the hardest things to convincingly portray for an actor. He’s also highly believable as a normal Boston guy in a tense, dangerous situation. The action never feels fake or Hollywood, a lot of this is down to Casey’s talent as much as older brother Ben’s direction.

This film suffered a little on release due to the subject matter and art imitating life, particularly in the UK where the disappearance of a girl that looked almost identical to the one in the film meant release was pushed back. This should take nothing away from it, this is a well told, well acted, well directed film – particularly from a debut Director.

Incidentally, if we’re talking Lehane adaptations, it’s worth noting that it’s less depressing than Mystic River and not as thrilling or scary as Shutter Island – sitting perhaps inbetween the two as a good, solid crime mystery. Worth your time.

The Town (2010)
Is this a companion piece to Gone Baby Gone? Maybe it should be packaged up as a Boston crime trilogy boxset with The Departed? Anyway, Affleck’s directorial debut set him up nicely to direct this tale of bank-robbing in the heart of Boston’s Charlestown – a place that accounts for over 300 robberies a year.

As well as directing, Affleck starred as the leader of the gang who decides to keep watch on bank manager (Rebecca Hall), as she could potentially identify him following his gang’s last job. As he begins to fall for her romantically he has to deal with volatile partner (the excellent Jeremy Renner) and evade capture from FBI detective (John Hamm).

the townFor me, this film had a lot of similarities with Michael Mann’s Heat, or the opening robbery sequence in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. At least in terms of epic, realistic gun battles in broad daylight and the cat-and-mouse game between cop (Hamm) and robber (Affleck). High praise you might say, but justified.

How Affleck found the time to act in this as well as get great performances out of a cast including Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall, John Hamm and Jeremy Renner I’ll never know. Renner was astonishing – all coiled up, explosive rage and intensity.

If you compare Affleck’s two directorial outings so far, I prefer The Town. It’s a simpler story than Gone Baby Gone, but more exciting and thrilling. Both are very good films though. Which leads us on to Affleck’s latest…

Argo (2012)
Hard for me to say too much about this as it’s only just come out at the cinema. The plot tells the story of a real life CIA mission in 1980 to rescue six American diplomats from revolutionary Iran, by posing as a Canadian film crew and staging a fake film in the country.

It’s got an interesting cast. As well as Affleck, it includes Bryan Cranston (from TV show Breaking Bad), John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Quite a departure from Affleck’s first two films, so it will be interesting to see how he handles it.

I’ll finish with the trailer below so you can judge for yourself. First impressions suggest it’s positioning itself as a serious thriller with comic elements. Almost like a grown-up version of Ocean’s Eleven. What do you think?