New in Theaters: ‘The Monuments Men’

Matt Damon and George Clooney in 'The Monuments Men'

Matt Damon and George Clooney in ‘The Monuments Men’

monumentsmenposter1During the latter part of World War II, as the Allies were advancing across Western Europe, special detachments of experts known as the Monuments Men fanned out with lists and a mandate to keep their own soldiers from demolishing cultural artifacts and finding those works that the Nazis had tried to keep for themselves. George Clooney’s attempt at turning that sliver of history into a cool, guys-on-a-mission film sadly falls apart almost before the opening credits begin.

The Monuments Men is playing now. My review is at Short Ends & Leader:

The film assembles a dream assemble and then abandons them without a story to work from. Clooney’s lack of control over his material is evident from the beginning. Playing team leader Frank Stokes, Clooney gets his presidential assignment (a bungled, laughable scene with one of the more comical FDR impressions seen on film since Annie) and starts getting the band together. Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), art restorer James Granger (Matt Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and the just generally artsy Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). (Later on, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin join the gang for some Continental color.) This should be basic stuff, a few character-establishing moments and team-building quips, plus the easy comedy of watching the academics struggle through basic training before their mission. But Clooney muffs almost everything from the start…

A couple of the actual Monuments Men with a stolen Rembrandt found in a German salt mine.

A couple of the actual Monuments Men with a stolen Rembrandt found in a German salt mine.

The trailer is here:

Now Playing: ‘Generation War’

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‘Generation War': A Drink, For Tomorrow We May Die

generationwar-posterFive friends meet for one last night together before three of them head off to war. It’s not the newest of premises but what gives the nearly five-hour epic Generation War more of a kick is that it’s about five German youths who will be hurled into the morally-devastating crucible of World War II.

It’s playing now in limited release and should hit DVD soon. My review is at Film Racket:

Controversial but also hugely popular in Germany, where it aired as a TV miniseries, this dynamic story about five friends sucked into the bloody maw of the Second World War is in line with earlier efforts to fit big-screen ideas and scope into a small-screen format. Much like those Herman Wouk adaptation epics of decades past, Generation War uses carefully pigeonholed and typecast characters as chess pieces to be moved about the broad, years-spanning story to cover as many points of interest and historical drama as possible. This produces a somewhat mechanical narrative, something that the hardworking cast resists as best they can, continually hitting high strumming notes of melodrama amidst the exploding shells…

The trailer is here:

Readers’ Corner: 100 Notable Books

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Just in time for readers everywhere to get ideas for gift-giving and to also realize exactly how few new books they have gotten to in the past year, The New York Times just released its annual 100 Notable Books list. It’s a daunting list, to be sure, and not always entirely justified—Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is somewhat inexcusably not on the list, while Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs takes up a not entirely necessary slot—but here’s a few of their selections that look best suited for catching up on in the long cold month of January:

  • All That Is - by James Salter. (Knopf, $26.95.) Salter’s first novel in more than 30 years, which follows the loves and losses of a World War II veteran, is an ambitious departure from his previous work and, at a stroke, demolishes any talk of twilight.

  • Duplex By Kathryn Davis. (Graywolf, $24.) A schoolteacher takes an unusual lover in this astonishing, double-hinged novel set in a fantastical suburbia.

  • Empress Dowagar Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China – by Jung Chang. (Knopf, $30.) Chang portrays Cixi as a proto-feminist and reformer in this authoritative account.

  • The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking – by Brendan I. Koer­ner. (Crown, $26.) Refusing to make ’60s avatars of the unlikely couple behind a 1972 skyjacking, Koerner finds a deeper truth about the nature of extremism.

I’ll be contributing as usual to the Best Of Books features at PopMatters, which should run towards the end of the year.

New in Theaters: ‘Salinger’

J.D. Salinger: Was he writing more books all those years up in New Hampshire?

J.D. Salinger: Was he writing more books all those years up in New Hampshire?

salinger-posterShane Salerno has mostly been a screenwriter for flicks like Armageddon. So it was surprising to hear first that he’d been working for nine years on a documentary about J.D. Salinger and second that he had some pretty large bombshells to drop about the infamously reclusive late author (i.e., new books!).

Salinger opened this week and is being promoted for a potential documentary Oscar nomination that it won’t quite deserve. My review is at Film Journal International:

Although Salinger contains several acute insights about the author’s psychology, its tendency to get as overly excited as the distributor’s heavily hyped publicity campaign sometimes cheapens the whole affair. It’s clearly a labor of love for Salerno, an action-film scribe (SavagesArmageddon) who reportedly spent nine years doggedly digging up material. But he teases out bombshell fragments about the possibilities of new Salinger writings with all the subtlety of a rocket-propelled grenade and resorts to laughable recreations with an actor who looks nothing like Salinger himself…

The trailer is here:

Reader’s Corner: Tolkien Family Correspondence

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In late 1944, J. R. R. Tolkien’s son Christopher–who would later prove so industrious in the keeping-up of his father’s legacy—was away from home, serving with the Royal Air Force in South Africa. J. R. R. had published The Hobbit seven years earlier, and was still in the process of writing his Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring wouldn’t appear in print until 1954). J. R. R. would post draft pages to Christopher as he wrote.

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In this letter sent three days after Christmas, J. R. R. talks about his new chapters:

I am glad the third lot of Ring arrived to date, and that you like it—although it seems to have added to yr. homesickness. It just shows the difference between life and literature: for anyone who found himself actually on the stairs of Kirith Ungol would wish to exchange it for almost any other place in the world, save Mordor itself. But if lit. teaches us anything at all, it is this: that we have in us an eternal element, free from care and fear, which can survey the things that in ‘life’ we call evil with serenity (that is not without appreciating their quality, but without any disturbance of our spiritual equilibrium)… I am afraid the next two chapters won’t come for some time (about middle of Jan) which is a pity, as not only are they (I think) v. moving and exciting, but Sam has some interesting comments on the rel. of stories and actual ‘adventures’. But I count it a triumph that these two chapters, which I did not think as good as the rest of Book IV, could distract you from the noise of the Air Crew Room!….

More of the letter can be found at the American Reader‘s “This Day in Letters” feature.

Department of Soap Operatics: ‘Downton Abbey’ and Decay

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With the premiere of the third season of Downton Abbey, it has become clear that the rest of the show (no matter how long it remains on the air) is likely going to some extent be centered on one thing only: The fighting of rearguard actions against the inevitable march of modernity, dissolution of class barriers, and the wrecking of aristocratic fortunes and the privileges they once bestowed. There will be more of the expected soap opera theatrics—one hopes for a couple good cases of selective amnesia, perhaps an evil twin to Cousin Matthew who pops up after spending a few years debauching in the Far East and now has eyes for Mary—but in the main it will keep coming back to the house, the staff, and the great tubs of money needed to keep it all running.

downton2It’s now 1920 in the show, with the Irish Civil War about to hot up in earnestness, England still mostly devastated from the losses of war, and the Great Depression and World War II waiting just around the corner to knock off what was left of the nation’s imperial largesse that sustains all those estates and their to-the-manor-born inhabitants. History insists that it will come to an end. But for all the show’s characters who carp from the sidelines about the new era and increasing freedoms, it’s clear that going forward the background emotion will be a reactionary sort of nostalgia for a time when servants and the lower classes knew their place. (For all those pining to work downstairs, PBS’s site has a truly horrible quiz here: “Which Downton Abbey Job is Right For You?“)

James Parker has a short, sharp rumination on the show and its “magnificent badness” in the Atlantic. It’s memorable, among other things, for his take on how Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Grantham (“…he has cultivated a strange, plodding denseness and deliberateness, as if the earl is contending with a minor brain injury”). Parker goes on to note, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that no matter how long the show continues, the end fate is certain. To that point, he pulls out a sad little gem from, of all places, Rod Stewart’s autobiography, where the singer is describing a time in 1971 when he and his fiancée Dee Harrington were looking over Cranbourne Court, a Georgian estate west of London they wanted to buy:

Its owner, Lord Bethell … was an English aristocrat fallen on hard times. As he showed Dee and me around the property one afternoon, Dee nudged me and pointed out quietly that his trousers had worn so thin that you could make out his striped underpants through the material.

Safe to say that the show’s creator Julian Fellowes will give the Crawleys a more dignified exit than that. Whether or not they deserve it is another point entirely.