Talking Movies

February 12, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney’s last directorial outing, The Ides of March, was compelling if histrionic, but his return to the director’s chair is a sadly muddled affair.

the-monuments-men-matt-damon-george-clooneyFrank Stokes (George Clooney) approaches President Roosevelt in 1944 to plead with him not to destroy Europe’s priceless heritage in the act of liberating it. Roosevelt agrees, and so Stokes is tasked with finding some other art historians, sculptors and curators to enlist in a highly specialised unit – The Monuments Men. Stokes rounds up Chicago architect Campbell (Bill Murray), Campbell’s friend Preston (Bob Balaban), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), drunken Brit Donald (Hugh Bonneville), and Met curator James Granger (Matt Damon). A French mechanic and curator Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a New Jersey private from Germany, are added to the roster in Europe. But not only must they work with icy Parisian Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to find priceless works of art, they must outwit determined Russian and German counterparts tasked with, respectively, stealing and burning it…

I wrote that last sentence to imply tension, because there ought to be a lot of it, given both Hitler’s Nero decree, ordering the destruction of everything in the event of his death, and the startling opening credits image of Italians desperately shoring up a bomb-damaged wall which is revealed to have Da Vinci’s Last Supper on it. Instead Clooney and his eternal co-writer Grant Heslov only inject urgency for the finale as frantic deductions lead Stokes’ men to a cache of stolen art just as Zahary Baharov’s Russian art-thief Commander Elya is closing in on it. Frankenheimer’s The Train is the touchstone for this movie, but Clooney introduces two successive Nazi villains Stahl (Justus von Dohnanyi) and Col. Wegner (Holger Handtke), neither of whom equal Paul Scofield’s avaricious Von Waldheim; even though Wegner is given a juicily suspenseful sequence.

There were 400 Monuments Men, not 7, so inventing a strong villain wouldn’t be outré. It’s a symptom of a wider lack of purpose. Blanchett and Damon’s characters are largely redundant, and Andre Desplat, in their clumsy seduction scene and his constant insertion of jaunty comic cues, scores an entirely different film. Clooney’s vignettes range from the amusing (Damon’s appalling ‘fluent’ French) to the shocking (a startling sequence in a wood clearing) and the hackneyed (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ being sung over the Battle of the Bulge), but they never cohere into a story, owing to bewildering tonal inconsistency, and he fails to flesh out just 7 characters compared to the Ocean’s characterised ensemble. The importance of saving art is reduced to an argument winnable by a single word from a cameoing Nick Clooney, but there’s no compensatory joyous ‘greatest art heist’ ever…

This approaches The Internship for uncomfortable parallels. Stokes is too old to fight, so he assembles aged men to embark on a loftier mission than the young grunts, just as Clooney retreats from blockbusters to prestige films. Monuments Men is always watchable but falls badly between crowd-pleasing and cerebral-pleasing.

2.75/5

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July 31, 2013

The Heat

Director Paul Feig reunites with his Bridesmaids star Melissa McCarthy for a female buddy-cop movie that’s short on laughs but still better than The Internship.

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Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a prim and proper FBI Agent who specialises in humiliating her co-workers with displays of her deductive genius. Her despairing boss Hale (Demian Bichir) sends her to a knotty case in Boston as a test. If she can manage to not alienate her co-workers while cracking the case he’ll consider her for a plum promotion, otherwise… Unfortunately for Ashburn the first Boston suspect she wants to interrogate, drug-lord Julian (Michael McDonald), brings with him an obnoxious arresting officer Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). The foul-mouthed Mullins volubly prefers brute force and ignorance to Ashburn’s Quantico-honed subtlety and reconnaissance. She also brings to the case a possible inside man, her deadbeat brother Jason (Michael Rapaport), recently released from prison and being recruited by Julian’s associate Adam (Taran Killam). Can Ashburn and Mullins work together and overcome their personal issues?

Bridesmaids was a curiously depressing film that relentlessly showed Kristen Wiig’s character defeated by life and yet expected audience cheers for the Little Miss Sunshine-aping end which solved only one of her many problems. Thankfully The Heat isn’t that infuriating, as, despite being written by Parks & Rec’s Katie Dippold, it feels like a thriller retouched as a comedy. Tony Hale and Kaitlin Olson pop up for lengthy and meandering scenes that completely waste their comedic talents. It’s hard not to notice that the comedy steps up a notch when Bill Burr and Nate Corddry appear as yet more Mullins siblings; and you suspect they improvised some of their cross-talking madness. Indeed the very deliberate delivery of the initially incomprehensible line “Ah you or ah you not a nahc?” to Ashburn is hands-down the funniest moment in the entire film.

Marlon Wayans is decent as Ashburn’s subordinate Levy, but the great Bichir is shockingly underused. Dan Bakkedahl’s albino DEA Agent Craig is the butt of an uncomfortable vein of crude humour, and that’s before the finale employs the wrong note of 21 Jump Street’s finale without its saving absurdity. Russell T Davies gave Billie Piper the line ‘Ooh, can you smell the testosterone in here?’ in Doctor Who, and that sexism has popped up endlessly and tiresomely in discussions of banking culture. I’ve longed for a character to rant about oestrogen in the same manner to expose the sexism of the trope, so it’s infuriating that Dippold has Agent Craig do just that; but by making him a deeply unsympathetic character subtly justify the corresponding sexist trope. It’s hard to know what to say about a central pairing whose bond is based on Ashburn learning to curse. I watched McCarthy play Sookie for 7 seasons of Gilmore Girls; she’s better than this, but this apparently is where the career is.

The Heat suggests that there’s a true gulf opening up in American comedy between the school of Rogen & Hill and unfunny people.

July 2, 2013

The Internship

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are forty-something salesmen made redundant by new technology who join what they can’t beat by becoming unlikely interns at Google.BRAY_20120725_2448.CR2

We meet Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Wilson) as their attempt to sell high-end watches to an old client is scuppered by their boss (cameoing John Goodman) unexpectedly closing their firm because manufacturers now regard salesmen as obsolete middlemen. Redundant Billy is immediately dumped by his girlfriend and soon after convinces Nick to join him in blagging their way into an internship. Arriving at Google Nick is instantly besotted with executive Dana (Rose Byrne), but she’s as unimpressed romantically with him as her boss, Chetty (Aasif Mandvi), is professionally by these two interlopers. Facing cutthroat competition led by the obnoxious cockney Graham (Max Minghella), can Billy and Nick whip their hapless mentor Lyle (Josh Brener), sullen hipster Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), self-loathing genius Tobit (Yo-Yo Santos) and flirty geek Neha (Tiya Sircar) into a team capable of winning the ‘mental Hunger Games’?

What do you think?… Co-writer Vaughn doesn’t spare the clichés, but he does run up hard against the strictures of the PG-13 rating. One of Wilson’s first lines ‘What the shit is this?’ signposts a problem which becomes ridiculous during a lengthy strip-club sequence. Would an R rating improve that sequence though? Probably not, as, regrettably following 21 and Over’s lead, this is another film that ridicules the Confucian privileging of education, instead venerating drunken debauchery, the avoidance of hard work at all costs, and endless unconvincing bluffing to compensate for such avoidance. The Internship is uncomfortably unfunny because so many scenes feature actors desperately mugging to try and wring even a single laugh from set-ups; like Lyle’s hip-hop stylings and the signature ‘on the line/online’ routine; that are just excruciatingly misguided – they’re not funny in conception or in execution.

It’s nice to see Rose Byrne using her own Australian accent for once, and there is an amusing scene where Nick tries to provide Dana with a decade’s worth of bad dating experiences by being comically rude, but The Internship has so few effective gags that the mind wanders. Doesn’t Google HQ resemble something out of Logan’s Run? How weird is it that a movie about forty-something guys made obsolete by twenty-something innovators should get its ass kicked commercially by Seth Rogen’s rival comedy This is The End? Indeed Vaughn’s co-writer Jared Stern and director Shawn Levy both worked on developing The Internship and The Watch, so this is like a fascinating controlled experiment: The Watch was being produced by Shawn Levy in this vein of comediocrity before Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg took that project and made it funny.

And then there’s the corporate angle… Doesn’t the plight of Billy and Nick tie in to Thomas Friedman’s 2007 book The World is Flat? Google is obsequiously portrayed as Friedman at his most enthusiastic would champion it – as a progressive flattening force that allows workers in India to compete against workers in Indiana by giving them the digital tools to do so. For Friedman such horizontal competition between new rivals is an opportunity for developed countries to move up the value chain by their smarts, but he never grapples with the truth that many Pittsburgh steelworkers cannot become coders in Silicon Valley: Nick masters writing HTML, but Billy cannot upskill. Ultimately Vaughn’s upbeat comedic finale is ironically only enabling an attitude Friedman criticises – that ‘imagination’ and ‘optimism’ will compensate for not learning the basics; because they weren’t a fun experience.

The Internship is a comedy badly lacking jokes, which will likely be remembered solely for its set-up’s slight mirroring of its own box-office defeat to This is The End.

1/5

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