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New films: The Monuments Men and Vampire Academy

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men
Directed by George Clooney

This is a film of extremely mixed emotions and responses and the critical mass of critical opinion has been fairly negative. I found it frustrating to watch because there are so many excellent elements in play – great cast, great underlying story, tense moment in history – and yet the end result feels so flat. It’s also a film that feels as though it’s trying to be more than one thing and failing on almost all fronts.

During World War II, Hitler had a plan to collect all of the major art pieces of Western Europe and establish his own art museum. The scale of this operation was enormous, with tens of thousands of paintings and sculptures being taken from existing museums, churches, and private collections throughout the countries Germany occupied or had an opportunity to plunder. But he wasn’t a fan of all art and some was simply destroyed along the way – and even the work he lusted after was destroyed as the German forces withdrew, rather than to allow it to be repossessed by the original owners.

The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program was established by the Allies, to counter this effort by identifying, finding, and repatriating the stolen artwork. At its height, approximately 400 people from 13 countries worked in this effort (according to wikipedia), and the work continued for six years after the war ended.

Part of the problem with the film is that it’s intended to tell this story and it does so relatively poorly. I certainly discovered more in five minutes browsing the internet than in two hours watching the film. Many of the major elements are present in the film, but it would happily leave you believing that all of this great work was carried out by a group of people numbering in the single digits, with no logistical support or organization. This may be somewhat representative of what it was like at the front lines for at least some of the teams involved, but the film fails to give any impression that what it’s conveying is the tip of the tip of an iceberg.

The other major problem is that the film never establishes a coherent or consistent tone. At some level, it’s a war film and tries to reflect scenes of destruction and torment, but they seem largely sanitized and staged, perhaps because truly messy war is very expensive to reproduce. Meanwhile the exploits of our tiny team of art historians and curators is often played for laughs – it’s a story told, at times, like a jolly caper of out of place people doing extraordinary things. It has moments that are actually reminiscent of the “Oceans Eleven” series of films by Clooney and friends, and these feel oddly out of place in the context of the larger film. It’s not that humor hasn’t been used to good effect in war films – it’s just that many other examples maintain a lighter tone, while “The Monuments Men” keeps attempting to be something more serious and profound and ends up seeming tonally muddled.

It also has the benefit of a wonderful cast (Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin , Cate Blanchett), most of whom seem easily within their range here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but we end up with a film and with performances that seem easy in a sense. It was interesting to watch this group and then walk away more impressed with the young Dimitri Leonidas who holds his own as the German speaking American soldier they press into service as their driver and interpreter. It’s not so much that it’s a standout role, it’s more that you expect very little from it in that company.

I did enjoy watching the film, despite the annoyances – and I’m glad the film was made as it’s a story that would continue to be relatively unknown without a film such as this. Sadly, it’s a story that would probably be better told via a documentary but only a fraction of the number of people would be likely to see it in that form and so the film certainly does a partial service to history in simply bringing the subject to the forefront for a few weeks at least. But it also does it a disservice by leaving such a misrepresentation of what actually happened and one can only hope more people end up reading more about it than would otherwise have done so.

It’s also a shame that there’s an attempt to play the circumstances for laughs in quite this way – there’s a difference between allowing the absurdity of a situation to become noticeable and playing up that absurdity for laughs. “The Monuments Men” is a well-intentioned but deeply flawed film.


Vampire Academy
Directed by Mark Waters

Even after “I, Frankenstein” a couple of weeks ago, this film is pretty awful. But, if anything, it still manages to be even more fun on the “so bad it’s good” spectrum. It could be the most blatantly derivative story adapted for the screen since “Eragon,” doing for young adult vampire romance what that mess did for dragon fantasies. Imagine the character Juno (from the film of the same name), channeling her inner “Buffy” and having a “Divergent” adventure at “Twilight” in a school that’s like a cross between Percy Jackson’s Camp Half-Blood (the half-breed hero training) and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts (the magic lessons). This is storytelling through a blender.

Rose Hathaway is a motor-mouthed Dhampir – a half human, half vampire whose role in life is to protect the Moroi. The Moroi are the nice vampires who only feed on willing human “feeders” and who also have magical powers, typically over water, air, or fire. In describing the Moroi, the film pokes fun at its predecessors by saying they’re not only somewhat immune to sunlight but they also don’t sparkle (an obvious dig at the “Twilight” series, that this film manages to make look remarkably accomplished).

Dhampir and Moroi children go to St. Vladimir’s (the “Vampire Academy”) to learn how to fight and/or channel their powers – and, apparently, how to act like the characters in one of Mark Waters, earlier films “Mean Girls.” This is more of a freakshow of unpleasantness than of supernaturalness. Rose’s vamp BFF is a princess who has multiple magical talents and even more shifts in personality, few  of which seem especially appealing or worth protecting.

The protection is necessary, however, because they live in fear of attack by the Strigoi – the bad vampires who become immortal by killing somebody while feeding. There’s probably an important lesson in there somewhere about addiction and/or appetite suppression but it’s lost, along with most of the backstory to this age old strife. We’re told it all at biteneck speed and you either roll with it or the film’s even more of a bust than it is otherwise.

The story itself is one of multi-layered jealousy and backstabbing and is laughably bad at almost every turn – outmatched only by the stiff and awkward acting. There are hints at a sequel that might drag “Walking Dead” into the mix of vibes and, at some level, I think I might be looking forward to it – albeit for all the wrong reasons.


Other film news

The Oscar nominated short film (described here last week) continue today at The Crest Theatre, culminating in unique screenings of the documentary short subjects tomorrow afternoon. More details here.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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