“THE MONUMENTS MEN” (2014) Review

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“THE MONUMENTS MEN” (2014) Review

A rarely known aspect of World War II was recently explored in this recently released war film. “THE MONUMENTS MEN” told the story about a group of men, established under the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program in 1943, to recover pieces of art stolen by the Nazi, before they could be destroyed on the orders of Adolf Hitler.

Produced and written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and directed by Clooney; “THE MONUMENTS MEN” began in 1943 in which art conservation specialist and museum director Frank Stokes convinces U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow him to assumble an Army unit compromising of museum directors, curators, and art historians to search for stolen art treasures of the Western world and return it to the rightful owners. Stokes, portrayed by Clooney, assemble six other men:

*Lieutenant James Granger, U.S.A.
*Lieutenant Donald Jeffries, British Army
*Sergeant Richard Campbell, U.S.A.
*Sergeant Walter Garfield, U.S.A.
*Lieutenant Jean Claude Clermont, French Army
*Private Preston Savitz, U.S.A.

Stokes also recruited a U.S. Army enlisted soldier named Sam Epstein to act as his interpreter and driver. And in occupied France, In occupied Paris, an art curator named Claire Simone is forced to allow Nazi officers like Viktor Stahl to oversee the theft of art for either Adolf Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum in Linz, German; or as the personal property of senior commanders like Herman Goering. She is nearly arrested for helping her Maquis brother unsuccessfully recapture such items. And later, all seems lost when Claire discovers that Stahl is taking all of her gallery’s contents to Germany, while the Allies approach Paris. Stokes’ unit is split up for various objectives throughout Western Europe. While most of them are frustrated by the Allies’ combat units, which refuse to restrict their tactical options for the sake of preserving architecture; Granger, who ends up in occupied Paris, meets Simone and discovers that she will not cooperate with the Allies, whom she suspects of also being art looters.

I suspect that true art lovers – especially those enamored of European art – might find “THE MONUMENTS MEN” to be an emotional and satisfying tale in which the Allies not only persevered over the Nazi Army, but also saved a great deal of important art work from being destroyed. And there are those who were probably disappointed that “THE MONUMENTS MEN” was not some kind of stylish caper film in the style of Steven Soderbergh’s “OCEAN’S ELEVEN”trilogy. How did I feel about “THE MONUMENTS MEN”? I found it entertaining, emotional, and surprisingly old-fashioned. Then again, this is a World War II drama about the preservation of famous Western art, in which the ages of the main stars range from early 40s to early 60s. More importantly, “THE MONUMENTS MEN” was released in February – a movie season that usually feature mediocre or bad films.

I could never regard “THE MONUMENTS MEN” a great film. I found the pacing uneven . . . especially in the movie’s first half. I felt that both Clooney’s direction and the script’s depiction of the men’s separation following their basic training rather confusing. I was especially confused by the whereabouts of the Donald Jeffries character. One minute he was in France with Stokes and Epstein. And in his next scene, he is in Belgium with no explanation in the movie’s narrative of how he got there. Come to think of it, both Campbell and Savitz end up in Belgium . . . without Jeffries. Or was it Italy? Very confusing. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I found Matt Damon’s performance rather flat. It almost seemed as if he was phoning it in – especially in the movie’s first half. In some way, I think Clooney tried too hard to make the movie so profound that it ended up feeling . . . hmmm . . . flacid.

Thankfully, the movie’s second half managed to be an improvement on the first. Especially since the Monument Men encountered more danger and their efforts to find the stolen art seemed to improve. Actually, the second half featured some action sequences that managed to inject some energy into the film’s story. Audiences finally get to see the dangers that the Monuments Men faced in order to achieve their goal – Nazi troops in a Belgian convent, straying into the middle of a battleground that became deadly, an encounter with a lone armed German soldier, and a close encounter with a land mine. The second half also featured a few excellent scenes – including Campbell’s reaction to a recorded letter from home during Christmas, Savitz’s exposure of Stahl, Granger and Claire’s near-romantic encounter inside her apartment, and Stokes’ interrogation of one of the S.S. officers responsible for the attempted destruction of some of the stolen art.

Technically, “THE MONUMENTS MEN” is a beautiful and elegant looking film of the old-fashioned kind. First of all, I have to compliment Phedon Papamichael’s sharp and colorful photography of England and Germany, which stood in for World War II-era Western Europe. Production designer James D. Bissell and his team did an admirable job in re-creating Western Europe during that period. I was especially impressed by his work, along with Bernhard Henrich’s set designs in the sequences that featured the Allied camps near the Normandy beaches and the German mine, site of the first batch of art recovered. Louise Frogley’s costume designs struck me as solid reflections of the years 1943-45. However, I must admit that I was not particularly impressed by Alexandre Desplat’s score. I simply did not find it that memorable.

The performances in “THE MONUMENTS MEN” also struck me as solid, despite the star power featured in this film. I really do not see anyone receiving an award, let alone a nomination, for their work in this film. Hell, I would be surprised if anyone’s performance was particularly singled out by critics or moviegoers alike. However, I did notice that Clooney, as a director, allowed each major character a chance to shine in a particular scene. Clooney got a chance to shine in the scene featuring Stokes’ interrogation of the German officer. Both Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett generated a good deal of heat in the scene featuring Granger’s near romantic dinner with Claire Simone. Bill Murray gave one of the most poignant performances in a scene featuring Campbell’s silent reaction to a recording he had received from his family for Christmas. Bob Balaban was marvelous in the scene in which Savitz exposed Claire’s former “supervisor” Stahl as a Nazi and thief with cold precision. Both John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, who had previously worked together in the Oscar winning film, “THE ARTIST”, managed to create a strong chemistry in two scenes that featured Garfield and Claremont’s encounter with a German sniper and their accidental wondering into a battlefield. But I feel that the best acting moment came from Hugh Bonneville, who did a marvelous job in conveying Jeffries’ passion and sense of danger in a scene featuring the character’s encounter with Germans at a Belgium convent.

Look, “THE MONUMENTS” is no classic. And I do not think it is the best movie I have seen this winter. It might be a bit too old-fashioned for the tastes of some (I can endure it). And if I must be brutally honest, the first half of Clooney and Grant Henslov’s script came off as limpid and confusing. But a strong second half and some golden moments by a talented cast led by Clooney more or less saved “THE MONUMENTS” for me.

“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” (2013) Review

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“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” (2013) Review

I can think of only three previous times in which one of director Martin Scorsese’s films has courted controversy. The first time the director courted real controversy was the release of his 1976 film, “TAXI DRIVER”. He also encountered controversy from two other movies – “THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST” (1988) and 1997’s “KUNDUN”. Scorsese and controversy have met once again . . . this time in the form of his latest release, “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”.

As the world now knows, “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” is a film adaptation of the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker who ran a firm that engaged in securities fraud and corruption on Wall Street in the 1990s. The movie begins when Belfort lands a job as a stockbroker at a Wall Street firm. His boss, Mark Hanna, advises him to adopt a lifestyle of sex and cocaine in order to succeed. Unfortunately for Belfort, the firm fails after the stock market crash of Black Monday within a few months. Now unemployed, Belfort is pushed by his wife Teresa to take a job with a Long Island boiler room which deals in penny stocks. Belfort’s aggressive pitching style soon earns him a small fortune and he also befriends Donnie Azoff, a salesman who lives in the same apartment building. The pair decides to start their own firm together and name it Stratton Oakmont. They recruit some of Belfort’s friends – among them, experienced marijuana dealers, colleagues from the boiler room and his parents as accountants. Despite the respectable name, the firm is basically a pump and dump scam. The movie depicts the decadent lifestyle enjoyed by Belfort and his employees, the break-up of his marriage to Teresa and his second marriage to lover Naomi Lapaglia. However, due to an exposé inForbes magazine, Stratton Oakmont attracts more enthusiastic employees and the attention of F.B.I. Agent Patrick Denham.

What can I say about “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”? I thought it was one of the most outlandish and crazy movies I have seen in years. Out . . . landish! And I loved every moment of it. Well, most of it. Who would have thought that after forty years as a director and producer, Martin Scorsese could still astonish moviegoers? Or even piss them off? I had first heard about the negative reactions to “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”, when I read about veteran actress Hope Holiday’s angry post on her Facebook page about the Motion Picture Academy’s screening of the film. But her reaction was not the first. I have come across a good number of negative reactions to “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” since learning about Holiday’s reaction. Curious over the hullabaloo, I found myself becoming very eager to see the film. And it did not fail.

It is possible that some might assume that I enjoyed the film simply for the characters’ excess – the sex and drug use that could have easily turn this film into one with a NC-17 rating. Actually, I did not feel one way or the other about the characters’ exercises in degeneracy. I simply accepted it, due to the fact that his excesses had been a part of his life during those years as head of Stratton Oakmont. And from what I have learned about the financial world of the super rich, such excesses were and still are very common. Some have claimed Scorsese had not only glorified Belfort’s lifestyle and crimes, but also allowed the character to get away with the latter with very little punishment – less than two years in a “Club Fed” prison, before becoming a motivational speaker. The U.S. government is responsible for Belfort’s scant punishment, not Martin Scorsese. And I cannot accept that the director glorified Belfort’s lifestyle. All I saw on the movie screen were a bunch of silly men behaving like a bunch of overindulged adolescents with too much money and too many “toys” (namely women, drugs and other expenses) on their hands. Thanks to Scorsese’s direction and Terence Winter’s screenplay, Belfort and his cronies merely struck me as pathetic and infantile.

More importantly, Scorsese’s movie frightened me. Belfort’s willingness to exploit the desires of ordinary men and women to satisfy his own greed struck me as off-putting. Scorsese emphasized this negative aspect of Belfort’s profession by conveying the latter’s lack of remorse toward his victims. I am not lacking in compassionate when I say that I did not need to see the effects of Belfort’s machinations toward his clients. The amoral attitudes of the stock broker and his employees seemed more than enough for me to get an idea on how much those clients suffered. I still have memories of that bizarre scene in which Belfort and the Stratton Oakmont staff treated shoe designer Steve Madden with great contempt, as Belfort expressed his intent to invest in Madden’s company . . . a scene that almost left me shaking my head in disbelief. But if there is one scene that scared me senseless was the one that featured the business luncheon between Belfort and his boss at L.F. Rothschild, Mark Hanna. In this scene, Hanna gave the newly hired Belfort tips on how to become a successful stockbroker. A good deal of those tips involved the use of drugs and sex. But the one tip that really comes to mind was Hanna’s instructions that Belfort prevent clients from cashing out their investments for the profit of the firm and the stockbroker. Hanna’s advice reminded me of how Las Vegas casinos try to keep even winners playing so the latter would eventually lose what they had gained – something I learned from Scorsese’s 1995 film, “CASINO”. That was some scary shit. One other scene proved to be just as scary . . . the last one that found post-prison Belfort hosting a sales technique seminar in Auckland, New Zealand. That last shot of the audience drinking in Belfort’s words they believe will make them rich struck me as a sure symbol of the greed in human nature that really never dies – even if humanity would rather pretend otherwise.

I certainly cannot complain about the movie’s production values. “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” proved to be a sharp and colorful looking film, thanks to the crew that contributed to the movie’s visual style. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is the man mainly responsible for that sharp and colorful look that I had commented upon. But I also have to commend both Bob Shaw’s production designs and Chris Shriver’s art direction for taking movie audiences back to the excessive greed era of New York during the 1980s and 1990s. Legendary costume designer Sandy Powell contributed to this look by basing many of the men’s costumes on Giorgio Armani’s archives from the 1990s. I also enjoyed her costumes for the female cast members, especially those for actress Margot Robbie. Long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker took a movie with a four-hour running time and managed to trim it into a movie one-minute short of three hours. She did an excellent job, although I believe the movie could have benefited with another twenty minutes or so trimmed from its running time. In fact, the extended running time is my one major complaint about the film – especially the sequence that featured Belfort’s downfall.

Other than the frank portrayal of Jordan Belfort’s career as a stockbroker and the financial world of the 1990s and Martin Scorsese’s excellent direction, the one other major asset of “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” was its talented cast. Once again, the man of the hour is Leonardo Di Caprio, who gives one of the best performances of his career as the charismatic and corrupt Jordan Belfort. When I say it is one of his performances, I damn well mean it. Not only did he give an excellent performance throughout the movie, he gave one of the funniest and probably the best acting moment during the entire year of 2013 – namely a sequence in which Belfort, high on Quaaludes, struggle to get into his car and drive home in order to prevent his partner Donnie Azoff from revealing too much during a telephone conversation bugged by the F.B.I. My God! It was hilarious.

Portraying Donnie Azoff (who is based on Danny Porush) was comedy actor Jonah Hill, who proved he could mix both comedy and drama with great ease and hold his own with the talented Di Caprio. His portrayal of Azoff’s forays into excess and egotistical behavior was a marvel to behold. Margot Robbie, who I remembered from the ABC series, “PAN AM”, portrayed Belfort’s second wife, Naomi Lapaglia (based on Nadine Caridi). She really did an excellent job in portraying the sexy, yet very tough Naomi – especially in one difficult scene in which her character had to deal with marital rape before she put an end to their marriage. The always impressive Kyle Chandler portrayed F.B.I. Special Agent Patrick Denham (based on Special Agent Gregory Coleman), the man responsible for Belfort’s arrest. Superficially, Chandler’s Denham seemed like a quiet, straight-laced type whose dogged investigation brings Belfort to his knees. But Winter’s screenplay and Chandler’s subtle performance allows a peek into the possibility that Denham, who had harbored ambitions to become a stock broker, envies the lifestyle that Belfort managed to achieve, despite the corruption that surrounds the latter.

The movie also featured outstanding performances from Jon Bernthal, who portrayed Belfort’s muscle-flexing Quaaludes dealer. I was amazed at how much Bernthal resembled a younger and better-looking Danny Trejo. Joanna Lumley gave a charming performance as Belfort’s British in-law, Aunt Emma. I especially enjoyed one scene in which Belfort asked her to engage in money laundering on his behalf and both ended up wondering about the other’s attraction. Jean Dujardin gave a sly and funny performance as Swiss banker, Jean-Jacques Saurel, whom Belfort used to hide his money from the Federal authorities. The movie also featured solid performances from Cristin Milioti (“The Mother” from “HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER”), Kenneth Choi (from “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”), P.J. Byrne, Jon Farveau, Rob Reiner (who was especially funny as Belfort’s accountant father), Shea Whigham and Christine Ebersole. But the one supporting performance that really had me rolling with laughter came from Matthew McConaughey, who portrayed Belfort’s L.F. Rothschild boss, Mark Hanna. Despite the scary content of Hanna’s advice, I must admit that McConaughey really did a great job in making the most in what almost proved to be a cameo role.

“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” proved to be appreciative enough for the Academy of Motion Arts and Pictures to give it several nominations, including Best Picture. And there seemed to be a good number of people who seemed to understand what this movie is really about. But I get the feeling that too many are determined to write off this film as nothing more than a glorification of Jordan Belfort’s excessive lifestyle and corruption. I cannot share this feeling. I believe that Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter and the first-rate cast led by Leonardo Di Caprio gave us a movie that many should view as a cautionary tale. I mean, honestly . . . if I ever consider investing my money in stocks, I will whip out a copy of this film to remind me there are plenty of people like Jordan Belfort in this world – even in reputable investment firms – who would not blink an eye to separate me from my money for their benefit. I once read an article that compared stock investments to casino gambling, to the detriment of the latter. After viewing “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”, I cannot help but wonder if both means of “gambling” are a lot more similar than we would like to believe.