[Screen It]

(2014) (George Clooney, Matt Damon) (PG-13)

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Drama: An American art historian assembles a team of fellow art experts to track down and retrieve priceless pieces of art stolen by the Nazis in WWII.
It's the 1940s and art historian Frank Stokes (GEORGE CLOONEY) has informed President Roosevelt that the Nazis are in the process of stealing priceless pieces of art from throughout Europe. After being given presidential permission, he sets out to assemble a team of fellow art experts to track down and retrieve all of those stolen paintings, statues and such.

Among those he selects are museum curator James Granger (MATT DAMON); architect Richard Campbell (BILL MURRAY); theater director Preston Savitz (BOB BALABAN); sculptor Walter Garfield (JOHN GOODMAN); art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (JEAN DUJARDIN); and recovering alcoholic Donald Jeffries (HUGH BONNEVILLE). Once they arrive in Europe, they spread across the land looking for leads.

For James, that means heading to Paris where he ends up meeting art museum employee Claire Simone (CATE BLANCHETT) who's been keeping dibs on SS Officer Viktor Stahl (JUSTUS VON DOHNANYI) and his interests in the art there. Richard and Preston end up teamed together, as do Jean Claude and Walter, while Frank is joined by German expatriate Sam Epstein (DIMITRI LEONIDAS).

As they set off on their quest, they must not only contend with the Russians who are reportedly taking the stolen artwork as reparations for their war losses, but also word that Hitler has ordered all such artwork destroyed should Germany fall in the war.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
It's sometimes hard to remember -- and likely near impossible for young people to fathom -- but there was a time when not every event and thought was captured and displayed on social media websites, shared via texts, or shown on the 24 hour news cycle. Yes, back before the Internet as well as TV, film and still photography, the sharing of world or local events as well as personal interpretations of them was done via writing or artwork.

Both were far from immediate, actually took time and thought to compose, and could only reach so many people at one time compared to the millions or even billions that can read, see or hear something nowadays. And notwithstanding books that at least could be mass produced once the printing press was developed, most of those works were one-offs and thus both rare and quite valuable.

It always pains me to hear of fires in the past that destroyed libraries and other such repositories of said art as their place in the world of documenting and showcasing views of bygone eras were lost forever. Perhaps that's part of the impetus behind a mission of which I had never heard before until this week's related film decided to depict such an important and valiant effort.

The film, "The Monuments Men," creates a part fictionalized view of the real volunteers who literally put their lives on the line back during WWII trying to find and recover vast amounts of artwork stolen by the Nazis. Being something of a WWII buff, I was surprised to learn that President Roosevelt created the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas back in 1943, and that lead to the creation of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, a.k.a. Monuments Men.

They were comprised of professors, art historians, museum directors, curators and such -- not exactly the first group of men one would associate with WWII action. Yet, there they were, sometimes on the front lines and clearly in harm's way, all while trying to prevent damage to priceless art during bombings and such when not acting as detectives in trying to figure out where the stolen loot was hidden.

It's a fascinating yet mostly unknown tale of heroism and even mortal sacrifice in the name of protecting art and thus ripe for a movie about said actions. Writer/director/producer George Clooney and co-writer/producer Grant Heslov certainly thought so and have based some of the plot on Robert M. Edsel's book, "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History."

Alas, and despite being an obvious labor of love, this WWII flick about art lovers trying to save art from the Nazis doesn't end up being a great work of art itself. To be fair, it's not awful, but the film never quite gets comfortable in trying to balance its tone and -- despite the scenario -- lacks the proper level of gravitas to make most viewers care about the characters or their mission. And that's despite having Clooney both behind and in front of the camera where he's joined by the likes of Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, "The Artist's" Jean Dujardin and more.

The annals of cinemadom are filled with movies about soldiers on a mission, but one of my favorites has always been "Kelly's Heroes." That was the film where Clint Eastwood lead a similar all-star cast behind enemy lines to get their hands on a lot of stolen gold located in a small town. They were operating outside the normal military operations, didn't have much if any outside support, and thus ended up having to be quite resourceful in pulling off their heist. The result was a splendid WWII flick filled with action, suspense, comedic relief and characters you actually cared about.

The same should and could have worked here, especially considering the plot parallels and Clooney's desire to shoot and present the film in something of an old school fashion (including a WWII era type score by composer Alexandre Desplat). Yet, what worked so well in "Kelly's Heroes" mostly falls flat here. We know little to nothing about most of the characters (and thus don't form any sort of emotional attachment to them), the shifts in tone from serious to far lighter material aren't seamless, and the overall plan isn't exactly gripping, at least as presented.

In fact, the nearly two-hour film feels like it runs much longer as those on the mission split up into small teams or solo acts as they try to track down the stolen art, and in particular the Ghent Altarpiece paintings and Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges sculpture. Without letting the viewer in on any specific plan (as compared to the Eastwood flick or even Clooney's own "Ocean's Eleven" caper), the plot lacks momentum and ends up feeling like it's somewhat meandering around, hoping to stumble upon the stolen loot.

Again, it's far from horrible, but considering the cast, those behind the camera, and the overall premise, this should have been a slam dunk both in terms of being emotionally involving and entertaining viewers. Instead, it sort of comes off like being back in school and forced to visit an art museum when you really wanted to be anywhere else but there.

While it's an admirable effort in terms of shining a light on this little known historical endeavor, "The Monuments Men" likely isn't going to be the first film someone grabs should any fire break out (or Nazis storm in looking for art to steal). It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed February 4, 2014 / Posted February 7, 2014

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