Let me make one thing clear at the outset: I do not like to see graphic violence in films. For this reason, I tend to stay away from overly violent gangster and war movies. And even in the excellent film “12 Years a Slave”, I thought that some of the violent scenes detracted from the power of the story.
But, as with almost all rules, there are exceptions (I say ‘with almost all rules’ because there are rules to which there are no exceptions – but these rules are the exceptions). For example, one movie that I really liked I saw about 40 years ago, Sam Peckinpaugh’s “Straw Dogs” with Dustin Hoffman and Susan George – the story of the young couple (as I recall it) who moved back to George’s native England, bought a rural house, and (the reasons I don’t recall at all) were under attack by their neighbors. On the theory that a man’s home is his castle and he has the right to protect it, Hoffman dropped his “love, not war” philosophy and murdered about a billion men who stormed the house. I got a kick out of that. It was all so unreal, that it was, for me, hard to classify it as violence.
“Django Unchained” was to me another “Straw Dogs”. You probably know the basic story. In pre-Civil War Texas, slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and his wife (Kerry Washington) are sold separately. Django is sold again, this time to a northern con man and bounty hunter (who happens to be both an abolitionist and Christoph Waltz), who frees Django and mentors him to become his bounty hunting partner, and off they go fleecing the world, creating a fair amount of havoc as they proceed through the south. But they have one primary goal in mind – to locate Django’s wife and free her, so the couple can live happily ever after. They discover her at the plantation of Calvin Candie (a/k/a Leonardo diCaprio) (‘Candieland’) and try to buy her back. When they are discovered (you can’t pull the wool over house slave Samuel L. Jackson’s eyes), mayhem results. “Straw Dogs” redux.
So what is this film? An allegory? An adventure story? A satire? A fairy tale? A story about slavery and the south? It is impossible to categorize it – because it is one of a kind. It is original, unexpected, makes you roll your eyes (in a ‘why am I watching this?’ sense) and laugh out loud at the same time. It takes an extraordinary (and extraordinarily weird) mind – that of director Quentin Tarentino – to come up with this concept and, even more, to pull it off. And the acting of Waltz, Foxx, Washington, Jackson and DiCaprio (along with absolutely everyone else in the movie) is extraordinary.
If you haven’t seen “Dango Unchained” – you should. You will either love it, despise it, or (more likely) both at the same time.
Which brings me to “The Monuments Men”. Now this is a great story. The Nazis steal art all over Europe – from Jews, from Museums, wherever they can, and hide thousands of pieces to be placed in museums across the 1000 year Reich, but particularly in a spectacular museum to be built in Linz, Hitler’s home town. The Allies realize that the art has disappeared, of course, and decide to assign a small group of men, with a history in art or museum curating, to track down the art and ease its post war recovery (and to make sure it is not destroyed in the meantime). Although much has been written about Nazi stole art and its recovery, it wasn’t until 2009 that a book, “The Monuments Men”, by Robert Edsel, attempted to tell the story of this elite military group.
It was this book that provided the basis for the film, which came out last year. How close the film tracks the book, how accurate the film is to the history, I am not sure (but I understand that great liberties were taken with all the characters and incidences). But the book attempts to tell the overall story, and one would think, with a modicum of creativity and talent, the story would make a great film. At least, this is what George Clooney thought – after all, he wrote the screenplay, produced the film, directed it, and starred in it. How could one man do so much? The answer is: he couldn’t. Perhaps, this is the problem with the film. Perhaps a better film could be made if they had a director who was not playing the main character, and who had not written the dialogue.
Clooney tried to ensure that the film would be great by enlisting an extraordinary cast (more stars, even, than “Django Unchained”) — Clooney (and his father), Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett, to name a few. Each of these characters bombed – having seen all of them in roles where I thought they shined, it was painful to see them grope their way through this one, as the film goes from scene to scene in snippets which fail to ever develop a true story line.
So my advice here is clear: stay away. Don’t waste time or money on this one. Perhaps one day, “The Monuments Men” will be remade to give appropriate credit to the men who helped save much of the world’s great art in the final days of World War II. But until then……