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I've been looking forward to Monuments Men since the project - written and directed by, as well as starring George Clooney - first was announced. It seemed like a natural … a story with some basis in fact, a World War II background that seemed to have resonances of The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone, and co-stars that included Matt Damon,John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray. How could it miss?

Well, unfortunately, it does. Not by a lot, but enough to make Monuments Men a little disappointing.

The story is, at its core, true. During World War II, Hitler amassed an enormous amount of art from the countries he invaded, with the goal of essentially owning all of western culture to the extent that he could. And the plan, if Germany were to fall, was to burn all the artwork, a loss that would be incalculable.

The movie picks up with Clooney, playing a Harvard art historian, pitching FDR on why the IUS should endeavor to save all these works of art. He then has to assemble a team, just as he did in Ocean's Eleven, to track down the artworks and save them both from Hitler's minions and Allied bombing runs.

The problem isn't that the story isn't fascinating. It is. But I think Clooney may be trying to do too much here, telling too many stories with too many fragments. Instead of his cast playing off each other, they're sent in too many directions to pull on different plot points, and nobody has enough to do. Strangely enough, I think he might've been better off had he fictionalized the story a little more, giving it a stronger narrative line.

That said, I actually enjoyed much of Monuments Men. Clooney makes serious pictures for adults - and is there another current actor who can claim an output over the past 15 years or so that equals the likes of Out of Sight, Three Kings, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Perfect Storm, Ocean's Eleven, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Michael Clayton, Up In The Air, The Ides of March, The Descendants and Gravity? Sure, Monuments Men may not quite reach that level, but it is an intelligent attempt that, if nothing else, made me want to read more about the subject.

And one other thing. reminds us that our culture is not just defined by government, politics, public policy, health care and educational issues. In fact, we also are defined by our art … by the pictures we paint, the plays that are mounted on stages across the country, the books that fill our libraries, bookshelves and even tablet computers, the songs that we sing and listen to, and the movies and television shows that we watch. This is not to say that all art is good or should be for everybody … far from it, because all that would produce is lowest common denominator art. We should encourage art at both the center and at the fringes, whether we like it or not, because art in all its various forms and permutations - unlike government and politics - often is the best, or at least most accurate representation of what is in our hearts and souls. And a society that does not respect culture in this fashion, and nurture its artists, is not a society that will survive.

At least, in my not-so-humble opinion.




BTW … in 1964, the superb director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days In May, Black Sunday) directed a nifty black-and-white war thriller called The Train, starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Schofield, that used the Nazi/art plot to better advantage. Despite my film school education, and the fact that Lancaster is one of my favorite film actors (I met him once, and a more charismatic person would be hard to find), I couldn't remember ever having seen The Train. So having read a number of Monuments Men reviews that mentioned The Train, I did what any red-blooded cinephile would do under such circumstances - I streamed in on Amazon, and discovered a really good movie that is totally watchable.

(A digressive note here. In addition to the Frankenheimer movies mentioned above, one movie of his that is worth seeing if you have not is French Connection II, a sequel to the iconic Gene Hackman police thriller. It is a completely different movie than the original, taking place entirely in France, and Hackman delivers what in many ways may be his finest performance, albeit one that didn't get a ton of attention because the movie was a "sequel." But it is a fabulous movie and worth catching up with if you get the chance.)




If you did not see it during its run in theaters, I would suggest that you rent or stream About Time, the Richard Curtis (Love, Actually movie about time travel.

Except that it really isn't about time travel. That's simply the MacGuffin, the plot device that allows Curtis - perhaps our least cynical major film director - to explore the meaning of love. While the movie is nominally about having the ability to go back in time and fix your mistakes, what it ends up really being about is treasuring each day, and embracing every opportunity, so that you don't have to go back in time to do so.

I've now seen About Time four times - twice in theaters, and twice at home - and it officially is in my list of all-time favorite movies. Not because it is great cinema, but because it touches my heart every time I watch it. (And, for the record, my kids love it, too … it has become a kind of bonding experience for us, even across thousands of miles.)

See it. Enjoy it. And then go hug your parents, or your children.




I cannot tell you how lucky I've been this week. While the snow and sleet have been falling on my home in New England, I've been working in Florida … the other day, I enjoyed a breakfast of blackened dolphin at Lorelai's in Islamorada, and then drove through the Keys listening to Jerry Jeff Walker on my iPod.

Doesn't get much better than that.




Have a great weekend. Stay warm and dry. I'll see you Tuesday.

Slàinte!
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