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Column Fri Feb 07 2014

The Monuments Men, The Lego Movie, Gloria, 24 Exposures, If You Build It & Hank: 5 Years from the Brink

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The Monuments Men

Is the story if the real-life, World War II-era Monuments Men one worth telling? Without a doubt. Is this George Clooney-directed and -co-written film about this team the way it should have been told? Probably not. The Monuments Men is something of a tonal cluster-frick that can't decide whether it wants to be "Hogan's Heroes" or something far more serious.

This story about an international group of largely middle-aged art historians, curators and architects who must go into Europe (often behind enemy lines, although Germany is basically retreating at this point) to both locate and save precious works of art that the Nazis stole and are hiding, as well as keep the Allied forces from destroying the wrong buildings and artifacts as they advance and liberate the continent, is a remarkable and important one.

The point is made more than once that to destroy a country's art history is to destroy its culture and achievements, so the significance of this European treasure hunt was not lost on me. But Clooney and frequent co-writer/producer Grant Heslov (working from a book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter) never miss an opportunity to insert a joke or light moment into their screenplay, and each time they do, it undercuts the inherent drama of the overall mission. I'm not saying the film shouldn't have some levity, but it's a bumpy ride through this tale of saving some of history's greatest works.

Clooney casts himself as Frank Stokes, the man put in charge of The Monuments Men, consisting of such players as Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville ("Downton Abbey) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist, The Wolf of Wall Street). It's an uphill battle for the team as they encounter resistance to their mission even from their own forces, who don't seem to like being told they can't blow up whatever buildings they want. But the real mission is finding these large stashes of missing paintings and sculptures, a task for which they must enlist the help of a French woman (Cate Blanchett) who worked in the Nazi office in Paris that sent various artworks to their hiding places. She is considered a collaborator by many, but Damon's James Granger believes she was secretly part of the Resistance and might be able to help his cause.

And here's a classic example of what's wrong with The Monuments Men. Rather than simply have Damon and Blanchett work as a team to local this art, the script inserts a dull and predictable potential love story that brings what little action there is to a grinding halt. Far more interesting are moments when the team gets its hands a little dirty interrogating prisoners about these secret stashes of art. The moments when they locate something precious are some of the film's best, and the very thought of them cataloging the tens of thousands of works at each location seems unfathomable, let along getting them back to their rightful owner nations.

There are a few more human moments that also work in The Monuments Men, such as a scene in which Damon accidentally steps on an unexploded landmine, allowing his comrades with engineering degrees to attempt a rescue of sorts. But the problem with the scene is that it feels manufactured for the film, and while I'm sure things like this happened quite often during World War II, they way it's executed here feel phony. Do we really believe all of The Monuments Men would stand right by Damon as a sign of support as he steps off the mine? That makes no sense on so many levels, especially when you consider how much of their mission they still have to carry out at that point.

The team suffers losses, both human casualties and works of priceless art (the Nazis apparently had a burn-as-you-leave policy toward the nations they'd conquered). There's a running plotline involving the retrieval of Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges, which one of the team died to protect. The way that thread plays out borders on laughable, and I don't believe for a second that it's in any way accurate. I'm assuming the purpose was to heighten the drama of its discovery, but I had to resist the temptation to laugh out loud at the execution.

The Monuments Men is Clooney's fifth film as a director, and while it doesn't collapse into inanity the way 2008's Leatherheads did, it doesn't even come close to reaching the greatness of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or Good Night, and Good Luck. (The Ides of March is a toss-up; I liked it more than most, but I acknowledge its deficiencies.) Some of the individual performances here are good. Murray, Balaban and Blanchett are by far the most convincing, while Dujardin's performance seems the most period appropriate, but he excels in seeming like he's from another time.

Strangely enough, it's old friends Clooney and Damon who seem the least interested in the task at hand. I wouldn't say they were sleepwalking through the film, but there's nothing especially interesting or memorable about the way they move through a scene or interact. I'd love to see a documentary about the Monuments Men, because I bet their real-life adventures equal or trump anything set forth in this drab, distancing work. I don't know how you assemble a creative team and cast like the one in The Monuments Men and fall short, but that's exactly what's happened.

The Lego Movie

I feel a little bit sorry for kids that go to see The Lego Movie, only because they aren't going to get nearly as much out of it as their parents. I'll give credit where it's fully due: co-writers and -directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who proved with 21 Jump Street (and also the first Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) that just because the expectations for a movie are low doesn't mean the finished product can't be great. With Jump Street, Lord and Miller understood that a film based on a cheesy, dated TV series would likely stink to high heaven, and they played with that notion right there in front of all of us (the sequel seems to do the same, with many jokes in the trailer about unnecessarily going back the well for a follow-up).

With The Lego Movie, the prejudice is that films based on toys or games are often junk, so rather than simply craft a story featuring many familiar LEGO-ized characters, Lord and Mill has crafted a wonderfully inventive and heartfelt testament to the binding power of creativity and thinking outside the box (or in the case of this film, building without following the directions). Our hero is a lowly construction worker named Emmet (energetically voiced by Chris Pratt), a guy who lives in a LEGO city where everyone plays their part, follows the rules, listens to the same music (if this film had come out last year, the annoying catchy song "Everything is Awesome" would have been the clear Oscar frontrunner), and follows a routine that leaves little room for standing out in a crowd, which is looked down upon by the city's leader, President Business (Will Farrell), whom we know is actually the evil Lord Business, intent on ruling the world with a secret weapon.

When Emmet accidentally becomes attached to something known as the Piece of Resistance, he becomes the front runner to lead a group of Master Builders — characters who desire to build without following instructions — to defeat Lord Business. The idea that Emmet is "The One" comes from a prophecy from the blind wiseman Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), who first made all aware that a savior was coming when he was made blind by Lord Business years earlier. Vitruvius' right-hand is the kick-ass Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who seems more suited for the job as savior, but she finds Emmet and brings him to the meet the Master Builders, who are unimpressed.

As you may have figured out from the trailers and commercials for The Lego Movie, there are quite a few fun cameos throughout the film, both in terms of characters and voice actors. Will Arnett plays Wyldstyle's brooding boyfriend Batman; Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill pop in as Superman and Green Lantern, respectively, and not surprisingly, Superman can't take the Lantern seriously. Cobie Smulders rounds out the superhero lineup as Wonder Woman. My favorite characters is Good Cop/Bad Cop (his head rotates from smiley face to mean face), voiced by Liam Neeson, and a tricked-out pirate named Metal Beard (Nick Offerman). Some of the cameos are too good to spoil, and so I won't.

But the surprises in The Lego Movie aren't the gimmicks; the real heart of the film rests in its message about thinking for yourself rather than following the lead. There are hints dropped that there is a bigger world outside of the LEGO one; there's a reference to someone known only as The Man Upstairs, and a drawing of him made me think it was simply a clever moment. But the final act of the movie is exquisite and gets to ideas about imagination and preserving childhood that go so far beyond the rest of the already strong film. The film did something that very few movies do these days: it surprised me more than once at how advanced and reaching its thought process was.

The Lego Movie is also truly funny and a wonderful example of pure entertainment, and I haven't even mentioned the look of the film. The result of a combination of stop-motion and CG animation, the characters move and have the physical restrictions of actual Lego characters (no elbow or knee joints, cup-holder hands, etc.), not to mention the actual shine and look of the plastic characters, buildings and vehicles. My point is, it all looks very real, which only adds to the wow factor of the whole experience.

In addition to the greatness of the main song, if The Lego Movie had been released in 2013, it could easily have bounced any one of the Best Animated Film nominees out of the category and been a front runner, without doubt. Let's consider this an early contender for this year's award season, and possibly the best mainstream film I've seen in 2014 so far. It's a wonderful film that all ages will appreciate on difference planes. This is more than just a movie surpassing expectations for a toy-based experience; it's a genuinely, unconditionally tremendous movie that will likely have you rummaging through your attics and basements for those old toys, but not in the same way the Toy Story movies did. Those were about nostalgia; The Lego Movie is about building something right now.

Gloria

A winner for Best Actress at last year's Berlin Film Festival and Chile's official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, Gloria essentially boils down to one powerhouse performance from Paulina Garcia that covers everything from passionate to desperate and all points in between. The character of Gloria is a long-divorced middle-aged woman who can still shake it on the dancefloor of social clubs for single older adults. She wears slightly oversized glasses that seem designed to hide a core beauty, but when she meets a man she likes, she often doesn't hesitate to sleep with him. It's not that Gloria refuses to acknowledge her age; she simply doesn't let it become an excuse to stay at home or stop dating.

One night at a club, Gloria meet an even older man, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), who appears to share her qualities of a full heart and desire in finding a companion at this stage in life. He's a more recent divorcée, with attachments still to his ex-wife and two helplessly inept grown daughters, a reality that causes more friction than Gloria might be able to handle. They can't deny their attraction, but he also makes her feel less than on a couple of key occasions. Of course, at her son's birthday party, Gloria and her ex-husband get loaded and a little handsy and a lot personal, which doesn't exactly make Rodolfo comfortable either.

Gloria isn't about a good woman done wrong, not exactly. Gloria has plenty of flaws to go along with her lust for life. Her existence is made just a bit more lonely by the fact that her two grown children essentially endure, rather than value, her. The complexity of both the characters and the performances is critical to the success of the film as both a profile of loneliness and a drama about desperate people. Garcia's precise attention to detail makes Gloria completely believable as an object of desire as well as an older woman trying to never embarrass herself by pretending to be younger than she is. It's an extraordinary character study. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

24 Exposures

This murder mystery combined with a fetish photographer's search for artistic relevance is about the furthest thing from what most people consider writer-director Joe Swanberg's (Drinking Buddies, Hannah Takes the Stairs) specialty known as "mumblecore." At the core of mumblecore is conversation and a bit of erotic frankness, and there's still plenty of both of those to go around in 24 Exposures, Swanberg love letter to sleazy '80s thrillers, blended with a freewheeling sense of openness when it comes to sexual expression.

Billy (played by You're Next director and occasional actor in Swanberg's movies, Adam Wingard) is a photographer who specializes in elaborately staged death photos, usually involving scantily clad or partially nude women. In his images, the women appear to have been murdered, which makes the police suspicious when one of Billy's models shows up dead shortly after a shoot. Billy seems strangely detached from the incident, probably because he's fixated on a new model, Callie (Sophia Takal), whom his girlfriend Rebecca (Helen Rogers) has already invited into their bed for a threesome. Naturally, Billy is a scumbag of the highest order and takes advantage of Rebecca's open-mindedness by bedding models when she's out of town.

The most interesting character in the film is police detective Michael (You're Next writer Simon Barrett), who is trying to wrap his brain and moral compass around this new world that Billy inhabits. Michael is a socially awkward man who sees new opportunities in Billy's world, and he seems to lose sight of the fact that there's a murder investigation going on. In fact, the film's big reveal of who the killer is deliberately the least interesting aspect of 24 Exposures.

As I have been with his other acting roles, I wasn't thrilled with Wingard's performance, which comes across as true amateur-hour stuff. Swanberg sometimes uses first-time or untested actors in his films, but here the performance is noticeably poor, and the film suffers in small ways because of it. Barrett, on the other hand, is quite good as the moody, introverted cop, and he adds a layer of innocence to the proceedings.

But the real reason to check out 24 Exposures is the debate at its center concerning the dividing line between art and exploitation — a conversation I'm sure Swanberg has been at the center of with several of his explicit works. But the filmmaker isn't making excuses for what he does, nor is he letting himself off the hook just because he's the man with the camera. It's a fascinating discussion (usually between Wingard and Barrett), and a great example of the director turning the proverbial camera on himself. The film is more plot driven than anything Swanberg has made before, and I think he handles the storytelling admirably. The final film is bloody fun, darkly humorous, and begins a ethical conversation worth having. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

To ready my exclusive interview with 24 Exposures writer-director Joe Swanberg, go to Ain't It Cool News.

If You Build It

This documentary has such a good heart and centers on such genuinely kind people that you may get community service credit just for watching it (checking with my parole officer now). From Patrick Creadon, the director of the Will Shortz documentary Wordplay and I.O.U.S.A., comes If You Build It the often heartbreaking story of designer Emily Pilloton and architect boyfriend Matt Miller. The pair left cushy corporate jobs in 2010 for the rural surroundings of Bertie County, North Carolina to create and teach something called Studio H, a design-build class at the local high school that would be more than just a shop class but a way for the students to build something to improve the community.

The class lasts a year (so yes, they had to work over the hot North Carolina summer), but after spending months learning the basics of design-build and creating larger and larger projects, the class of 10 juniors designed and constructed a permanent building to house a farmers' market for their community. Not surprisingly, that's only the end goal; the journey is what either makes you stronger or destroys you. Emily and Matt experience a little of both.

The recurring point that the couple make is that they aren't here to be outsiders trying to do some charity work for a struggling community that was in the midst of a major economic downturn and still recovering from hurricanes, including one that came through while they were there. They wanted to move there permanently. The project was being funded exclusively from grant money, with only the teachers' salaries being paid for by the school itself, but only a few months in, budget cuts forced the school board to cut Emily and Matt's pay, so they were essentially living on credit and goodwill.

But they stayed on in the town, and the results were undeniable. Even the most resistant of the students came around and became solid workers, with a few showing a real gift for the design work. The students' parents were thrilled; and most of the townspeople seemed to take to Emily and Matt. But those pesky school board members never quite bought what they were selling, and it's crushing to see such a lack of support for education that directly benefits a community in full-blown recession.

Director Creadon does a fantastic job giving us the big and small pictures of these folks. The economic struggle on display in If You Build It is happening in tens of thousands of towns in America, and the teaching of practical skills that can not only be useful where you live but also possibly help get you into a college and a good-paying job is more valuable than words can say. But the film is careful not to paint this couple as saints. In fact, some of the their outbursts — at the kids, each other, the world — are the emotional highlights of the movie. How could they not get angry? You will for sure. This is not a film with a mission beyond hoping someone thinks twice about killing a program like this before it has a chance to do some real good.

Most importantly, If You Build It gives us a snapshot into the evolving lives of the Studio H students, and how they have been impacted by this class. Not surprisingly, no one left unchanged. It's a moving examination of how screwed up our priorities as a nation have become, and how a group charged with the well being of children failed miserably. There's little doubt you'll be shaken and angered by the film, but also be given a ray of hope that good people exist who are willing to take on the system in tiny but important ways. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

If You Build It director and Chicago native Patrick Creadon and producer Christine O'Malley are scheduled to appear for post-screening Q&As after the following shows: Friday, Feb. 7, 7:10pm; Saturday, Feb. 8, 7:10pm; and Sunday, Feb., 9 2:30pm

Hank: 5 Years from the Brink

It's a tough sell, I know. But the latest work from Oscar-nominated documentarian Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost trilogy, Some Kind of Monster and Whitey, which just played at Sundance) attempts to show us the United States' recent financial crisis, beginning in 2008, from the perspective of the then-Secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulson, who is interviewed extensively for this doc. In fact, the only new interviews in all of Hank: 5 Years from the Brink are with Paulson and his wife of 40 years, Wendy, which makes for a riveting and complex portrait of a man under extraordinary pressure and a situation that might have led to the collapse of life as we know it.

A former CEO of Goldman Sachs, Paulson is painted by many as Mr. Bailout, and understandably so. He and his team convinced Congress, President Bush and soon-to-be President Obama to commit to almost $1 trillion in capital to save many of the leading financial instructions in the country. And then he had the unenviable task of convincing the banks — all of them — to take the money as loans that were eventually paid back with interest. To hear him walk through one bank failure after another will make your brain ache, but equally gripping is to hear about how he and his wife weathered the insurmountable pressure that that period had on their marriage. I'm certainly not equating the two in terms of importance, but strictly in terms of the drama created in the narrative of this film.

Paulson has a gift for storytelling and making some of the most complicated issues of the time make some degree of sense. He makes no apologies for what he did, but he does admit when one idea or another to fix the problems doesn't work. He also makes it clear that while he was willing to do what was needed to keep the "too big to fail" banks afloat, he found the questionable practices that put them on the brink to be reprehensible. He even explains why he didn't push to have certain bankers brought up on criminal charges — he felt that stabilizing the economy was job one, and that going after these men would have sent things in a tailspin again.

Perhaps the scariest moments of Hank: 5 Years from the Brink is when Paulson admits that some of the fixes they instituted for the banks back in 2008 essentially set them up to fail again, making the world seem like some horrible waiting game today, as things slowly get better. Paulson doesn't instill much hope in our future, but he does seem to feel that it's not too late to make changes to stop another major collapse. This film is the first truly terrifying horror film of 2014, but it has also some captivating details that are critical to understanding recent history. The film opens today in Chicago exclusively at the AMC 600 N. Michigan Ave. theaters.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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