“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.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

Below is my review of the recent 2010 adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels – “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”:

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

After being on the air for nearly two decades, ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT” decided to air its own version of the mystery writer’s 1934 novel, ”Murder on the Orient Express”. Although there have been two other well known adaptations of the novel – the famous 1974 movie that starred Albert Finney and the 2001 teleplay that starred Alfred Molina. But this latest version starred David Suchet (considered by many to be the ultimate Hercule Poirot) in the starring role.

Directed by Philip Martin and written by Stewart Harcourt, ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” opened with Hercule berating a British Army officer, who has been revealed to be a liar in regard to a case. Upon completion of said case, Poirto travels over to Istanbul, the first step of his journey back to England. There, Poirot witnesses the stoning of a Turkish woman for adultery with a Colonel Arbuthnot and a Miss Mary Debenham. Thanks to an old acquaintance named Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (which owned the Orient Express lines), the detective manages to book passage aboard the famed continental train, the Orient Express. Among the passengers are Colonel Arbuthnot, Miss Debenham and a sinister American businessman named Samuel Rachett. The latter tries to hire Poirot’s services to protect him from unseen enemies; but the detective refuses due to a dislike toward the American. After the Orient Express becomes caught in a snowdrift in the middle of Yugoslavia, Rachett is found murdered in his compartment – stabbed to death twelve times. As it turned out, Poirot discovered that Rachett was a criminal named Casetti, who was guilty of kidnapping and murdering one Daisy Armstrong, the five year-old daughter of a wealthy Anglo-American couple. To protect the passengers from the Yugoslavia police, Monsieur Bouc hires Poirot to investigate the American’s murder.

Considering this film turned out to be the third, well-known adaptation of Christie’s novel, there were bound to be comparisons with the previous films – especially the famous 1974 version. All three movies featured changes from the novel. In this adaptation, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt decided to allow Poirot to witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. The characters of Doctor Constantine (a Greek doctor who volunteered to assist Poirot) and an American private detective named Cyrus Hardman were combined into a new character – an American obstetrician named . . . what else, Doctor Constantine. Rachett aka Casetti became a man who desired forgiveness for his kidnapping and murder of young Daisy. The brains behind Rachett’s murder turned out to be a different character. The Greta Ohlsson character was younger in this film. The movie featured a threat against Poirot’s life, after his resolution to the case. And the Orient Express remained snowbound a lot longer than in the novel and previous movies.

But the biggest change in ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” featured the addition of religion as a theme. In fact, the subject permeated throughout the entire movie. Television viewers saw scenes of both Poirot and surprisingly, Rachett, in the act of prayer. The movie also featured a discussion between Poirot and Miss Ohlsson on the differences between their dominations – Catholic and Protestant – and how they dealt with vengeance, justice, and forgiveness. Like many other Christie fans, I suspect that this addition of a religious theme was an attempt by Harcourt to allow Poirot to struggle with his conscience over his willingness to support Monsieur Bouc’s decision regarding the case’s solution.

There were some aspects of ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” that I found appealing. Due to the production’s budget, this adaptation spared the audience some of the over-the-top costume designs from the 1974 movie. The movie also featured first-rate performances from Denis Menochet (the best performance in the movie), who portrayed the car attendant, Pierre Michel; Brian J. Smith as Rachett’s private secretary, Hector McQueen; Barbara Hershey as the verbose tourist Mrs. Caroline Hubbard; Hugh Granville as Rachett’s valet, Edward Masterman; and Eileen Atkins as the imperious Princess Dragonmiroff. Despite portraying the only character not featured in the story, Samuel West gave an impressive, yet subtle performance as Dr. Constantine, whose occasional outrageous suggestions on the murderer’s identity seemed annoying to Poirot. I also have to give kudos to Harcourt for making an attempt to allow Poirot experience some kind of emotional conflict over the fate of Rachett’s killer(s). The novel never broached this topic. And in the 1974 film, Poirot twice expressed brief doubt and regret over the matter.

Despite some of the movie’s virtues, I found ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” to be rather disappointing. One of the biggest disappointments proved to be David Suchet’s performance. I have admired his portrayal of the Belgian detective for over a decade. But this movie did not feature one of Suchet’s better performances. In this movie, his Poirot struck me as harsh, judgmental and one-dimensional in his thinking. The movie also featured Poirot in full rant – against a British Army office at the beginning of the story, and against the suspects, following the revelation scene. In fact, this last scene struck me as an exercise in hammy acting that made Albert Finney’s slightly mannered 1974 performance looked absolutely restrained.

Unfortunately, most of the cast did not fare any better. Joseph Mawle, who portrayed the Italian-American car salesman, Antonio Foscarelli, gave a poor attempt at an American accent. His British accent kept getting into the way. As for David Morrissey’s portrayal of Colonel Abuthnot, I could only shake my head in disbelief at such over-the-top acting – especially in the scene following Poirot’s revelation of the case. And I never understood the necessity of making the Mary Debenham character so anxious. Jessica Chastain’s performance did not exactly impress me and I found myself longing for the cool and sardonic woman from the novel and the 1974 version. I really did not care for Serge Hazanavicius’ portrayal of Monsieur Bouc, the train’s official. I found his performance to be ridiculously over-the-top and annoying. One could say the same about Toby Jones’ portrayal of Samuel Rachett aka Casetti. Poor Mr. Jones. I have been a big fan of his for the past five years or so, but he was the wrong man for this particular role. What made this movie truly unbearable was the last fifteen to twenty minutes, which became an exercise in overwrought acting by most of the cast. Including Suchet.

There were other aspects of this production that bothered me. I never understood the necessity to change the instigator of the murder plot against Rachett. It made more sense to me to adhere to Christie’s original plot in that regard. And I found the use of religion not only unnecessary, but also detrimental to the story. I have nothing against characters with religious beliefs. But I found the scenes featuring both Poirot and Rachett praying in their compartments excessive. The religious topic transformed Poirot into a grim and humorless man.  Even worse, I found myself wondering if Suchet’s Poirot was suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Shock during the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film. He seemed to moving in a state of silent shock, while others – especially Monsieur Bouc – talked around him.  As for Rachett . . . I can only assume that the sight of him praying inside his compartment was supposed to be an indicator of his remorse over his crimes against Daisy Armstrong. Or did fear, instigated by a series of threatening letters, drove him to prayer? If so, the scene clumsily contradicted his other actions aboard the train – snarling at his employees and Pierre Michel, and propositioning Mary Debenham. The topic of religion also produced a tiresome scene filled with overwrought acting by Marie-Josée Croze, in which her character – Greta Ohlsson – lectured Poirot about the differences between Catholics and Protestants in regard to justice, revenge, forgiveness and remorse.

I found the stoning scene in Istanbul completely unnecessary and rather distasteful. I found it distasteful, because the scene changed Poirot’s character and allowed him to harbor a laissez faire attitude over the incident. Poirot also used the stoning scene to indulge in an excessive lecture to Mary Debenham about justice. He was right about the stoning being a part of a custom that no foreign visitor had a right to interfere. But his entire attitude about the matter did not seem like the Hercule Poirot I had become familiar with from Christie’s books, the movies and the ”POIROT”series. Worse, the incident provided a contradicting viewpoint on vigilantism and justice. Think about it. Poirot said nothing against the stoning, which was an act of vigilantism, because not only did he view it as a foreign custom, but also as an act of justice against someone who had sinned. Yet, at the same time, he expressed outrage and disgust over Rachett’s murder – also an act of vigilantism. The entire topic reeked of hypocrisy and bad writing.

”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” possessed some virtues that its filmmakers could boast about. Performances from Samuel West, Brian J. Smith, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, Barbara Hershey and especially Denis Menochet were first-rate. There were no over-the-top costumes that left me shaking my head. And thankfully, the Hector McQueen character strongly resembled the literary version. On the other hand, the movie seemed riddled with unnecessary changes that either lacked common sense or damaged the story. Its additions of the religion topic and stoning incident simply made matters worse in regard to story and characterization. And a good deal of hammy acting abounded in the movie and made me wince with discomfort, especially from David Suchet. In conclusion, this”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” turned out to be a disappointing affair for me.