Monthly Archives: February 2014

“The Monuments Men” and “The LEGO Movie,” Reviewed.

George Clooney;Matt Damon

Does George Clooney have an insouciance problem? At 52, the actor has achieved a mature gravitas that usually works for him; he’s the king of unflappable charm and a poster boy for American suavity. But any film written, produced and directed by its star can be fairly said to represent that individual, and Clooney’s The Monuments Men is more dapper than dramatic, more urbane than urgent. A World War II elite-soldiers-on-a-mission movie should, at least once in a while, make our pulse quicken. This one’s almost … calming. Instead of adrenaline, the film seems to be overdosing on its leading man: too much Vitamin C.

Based on a true story, Monuments Men has art on the brain – specifically, the priceless European cultural artifacts Hitler wanted for himself and that Allied air strikes placed in a different kind of jeopardy. Clooney plays an art expert who personally convinces FDR to allow him to recruit a band of fellow learned enthusiasts to go behind enemy lines and rescue some masterpieces. (It’s Saving Private Renoir!) The film stacks its deck with a remarkable cast – Clooney’s crew includes Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett even shows up for a while – but no one generates much of a pulse. Combat is supposed to be exciting, but even the deaths of some major characters barely register. The Monuments Men is well-intentioned, competently produced, eminently witty, and a real snooze.


The LEGO Movie, on the other hand, is the best kind of film: An out-of-nowhere delight. Who would have thought a 90-minute product placement extravaganza could be so relaxed, confident and fun? But the directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller are getting good at confounding our expectations – Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs beat the kids’-movie odds with inventive glee, and their comic adaptation of the 1980s relic 21 Jump Street offered parody with smarts and confidence. And frankly, if they can make America jump for joy over an epic comic saga of plastic bricks, I’m not sure anything is beyond them.

The animated film uses its derivativeness to its advantage – mashing up Star Wars, The Matrix, Tron and other well-worn hits to create a familiar stew that doesn’t require much explaining. Emmett (Chris Pratt), a plastic drone in LEGO world, embraces his humdrum life until he’s branded a “Special” by a rebel team – they’re out to stop Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from an evil scheme involving an enigmatic super weapon. What follows is a candy-colored CGI extravaganza – cleverly filmed to look as if the entire film was shot with LEGO pieces, but with the fluid grace of cutting-edge animation. More importantly, though, the story expertly straddles the line between kid-friendly themes and adult sophistication. Like the earworm tune that provides a boffo musical number, everything is awesome in The LEGO Movie: It’s a good time.

(IMAGES: The Monuments Men, photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures; The LEGO Movie, photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Take Six: The Best Romantic Dramas of the Last 25 Years.


In alphabetical order:

  • The Bridges of Madison County (1995) – Clint Eastwood, cresting the hill of the Mature Leading Man phase of his career, took a legendarily saccharine novel and turned it into art. It didn’t hurt that he has Meryl Streep along for the ride, but still.
  • Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Forget the stupid controversy over the film’s premise and remember that final scene, in which a heartbroken man swoons over an old shirt. It’s just devastating – epic storytelling on a tragically intimate scale.
  • The English Patient (1996) – Exotic landscapes, romantic obsession, and pain of every possible variety. Anthony Minghella turned the sands of Africa purple with passion.
  • Moulin Rouge! (2001) – A musical drama? Actually, yes: Even with all those burlesque laugh lines, Baz Luhrmann’s zany mash-up is awash in melancholy and suffused with heartache and loss.
  • Truly Madly Deeply (1990) – Minghella gets his second entry in this list, with a little-seen British film about a grieving woman (Juliet Stevenson) who rediscovers joy when her dead boyfriend (Alan Rickman) comes back as a ghost. If you don’t cry at the film’s closing scene, we can’t be friends any more.
  • A Walk on the Moon (1999) – Tony Goldwyn (of TV’s “Scandal”) directed this fine small drama about an unhappy housewife (Diane Lane) who discovers passion with a traveling salesman (Viggo Mortensen) during the summer of 1969.

Take Six: The Best Romantic Comedies of the Last 25 Years.


Five wasn’t quite enough. In alphabetical order:

  • Enough Said (2013) – Plain-spoken and touching without forgetting to bring the funny. Plus, any list like this one needs to include an entry that doesn’t fade to black as the couple embrace in a trite-but-satisfying Hollywood kiss.
  • Groundhog Day (1993) – A list like this should also have one film that is only tangentially about the romance. In this case it came down to Harold Ramis’ film or Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year Old Virgin, and that’s just no contest.
  • The Proposal (2009) – Romcoms seemed almost dead when this relic washed up onto our shores, and yet Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock showed us that charm (along with a winning formula and smart writing) can work miracles.
  • There’s Something About Mary (1997) – The Farrelly Brothers’ magnum opus is a clockwork comedy: Everything fits together perfectly, leaving us to marvel at the inspired elegance of “hair gel” and testicles caught in zippers.
  • The Wedding Singer (1998) – Yup, an Adam Sandler movie. But he and Drew Barrymore proved to be a potent onscreen couple, and the star’s love of his 1980s setting clicked in all the right ways. (The pair re-teamed for 50 First Dates, which is good but not Wedding Singer good. Their upcoming collaboration, Blended, looks awful.)
  • When Harry Met Sally… (1989) – Saving the best for last. Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron knocked this one out of the park, and spent the rest of their careers (I know, Reiner’s still working, but come on) trying to recapture this magic. It’s Woody Allen without the neurosis, and the best romcom of the last quarter century.

Take Five: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Local Hero.

He was known professionally by three names, but around these parts he always seemed to have four: “Fairport’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman.” We put our hometown celebrities on pedestals just like they do everywhere else, but Hoffman – who died today in his New York City apartment at age 46 – seemed unusually deserving of regional chest-thumping. You didn’t have to actually be from Fairport to feel a kinship with the guy … or to feel, on this day, like our cultural fabric has experienced a tear that can’t easily be mended.

My next column will be devoted to Hoffman’s career and legacy, but for now here’s a list of the five best performances in a career stuffed with great ones.

Almost Famous (1997) – As the real-life rock critic Lester Bangs, Hoffman offered the sage wisdom that effectively summed up Cameron Crowe’s best film.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) – It would have been easy to play his character, a craven embezzler, as a cartoon bad guy. Instead, Hoffman showed us the humanity behind this villain.
Boogie Nights (1997) – People were still getting used to seeing Hoffman in films when he showed up in P.T. Anderson’s porn-in-the-’70s epic as a misfit hanger-on. He stole the show – and not for the first time.
Synechdoche, New York (2008) – The actor provided quietly suffering ballast as an ailing theater director whose commitment to his craft consumes his life – literally – on a stage that swallows its actors whole.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) – Hoffman dripped venom as the privileged snob who sneered one too many times at Matt Damon’s anxious antihero. It was a drop-in role – more a cameo than a supporting performance – but the actor showed us who Freddy Miles was, and made a brilliant film that much richer.