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War caper is no masterpiece: The Monuments Men

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Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett join a stellar cast for the underwhelming war drama

Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett join a stellar cast for the underwhelming war drama

Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett join a stellar cast for the underwhelming war drama

Her is the pick of the latest cinema releases, which Paul Whitington describes as breathtaking.

The Monuments Men (12A, general release, 118 minutes)

Director: George Clooney. Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin. Four Stars *

WAR CAPER NO MASTERPIECE

Before the advancing Red Army so rudely interrupted him, Adolf Hitler was busy planning a massive art museum dedicated to himself and filled with great works plundered from all over Europe.

Not the degenerate stuff of course: in 1942 his stooges built a pile of Picassos, Dalis, Klees and Miros in the gardens of the Jeu de Paume in Paris and put a match to them. Apart from his other failings, Hitler was clearly not a reliable custodian of western European culture, and in 1943 the Allies established a team of experts to wrest as much great art as they could from Nazi hands.

It's a terrific story, but though reasonably entertaining, this glib and breezy film co-written, starring and directed by George Clooney mainly fails to do it justice.

Clooney's film pares a rich and complex story down into a straight adventure film, and instead of a team of 350 or so experts, we get a small band of maverick academics, a kind of cultural dirty half-dozen. Clooney plays Lt. Frank Stokes, an art historian who persuades the Roosevelt administration to fund a mission into France to track down stolen art.

After a fairly shabby start, The Monuments Men rattles along like one of those jaunty 1960s war capers, and cheery bursts of military music suggest this might have been the tone Clooney was going for. But in fact the film never really settles on a mood, and the plot shunts along in fits and bursts. Most regrettably of all, the story is told with little or no visual imagination, and as a consequence never really springs to life.

A brilliant love story for a digital age

HER (15A, general release, 126 minutes)

Director: Spike Jonze.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Scarlett Johansson, Olivia Wilde.

5 stars *

The pace of technological change is now so relentless that innovations become part of our lives before we've even had a chance to think about them. Have mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter enhanced human relations, or has their influence been more questionable, even pernicious? These are the apposite questions attacked by Spike Jonze in his breathtaking film Her, which manages to be smart, serious and romantic all at once.

Her is set in the near future, and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theorore Twombly, a lonely man who works for a company that produces love letters for people too busy to write them themselves. Theodore spends his days dictating charmingly sincere missives into his voice-activated computer. But he spends his nights alone in a gleaming Los Angeles high-rise, having recently split from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore has intimacy issues and misses his wife, but everything changes when he buys a new talking computer operating system armed with artificial intelligence. When Theodore gives the OS (Scarlett Johansson) a female identity, she calls herself Samantha. And though he initially finds talking intimately with a machine awkward, he slowly begins to fall in love.

Jonze's beautifully written, conceived and executed film imagines a kind of technological endgame in which gadget-laden humanity has forgotten how to feel. But it's also a deconstruction of the mysterious business of falling in love. Phoenix and a disembodied Johansson are wonderful in the central roles.

Fury owns the floor

Cuban Fury (15A, general release, 98 minutes)

Director: James Griffiths.

Stars: Nick Frost, Rashida Jones, Chris O'Dowd, Ian McShane.

Four Stars *

Simon Pegg's partner in crime Nick Frost branches out on his own in this winning and rather sweet comedy set in the febrile world of salsa dancing. Frost is Bruce, a portly office worker who lives alone and is painfully shy around women. When a pretty new boss called Julie (Rashida Jones) joins his firm, he's instantly smitten but can't pluck up the courage to ask her out, leaving the field to his oily rival, Drew (a hilariously obnoxious Chris O'Dowd).

Poor old Bruce is down in the dumps till he discovers something that give him hope – Julie likes to salsa.

In an amusing prologue we find out that as a boy Bruce was a champion salsa dancer who was poised for greatness when a run-in with some bullies put him off dancing for life. Now, in a brave attempt to win Julie's heart, Bruce seeks out his former dance instructor (Ian McShane) and tries to rediscover the old magic.

Directed by James Griffith, Cuban Fury is an old-fashioned, tender-hearted rom-com, but it's well cast, well executed and very hard not to like. Ian McShane has terrific fun as Bruce's ornery old curmudgeon of a coach and Chris O'Dowd is fearlessly creepy as the office sleaze.

 

Style, no substance

Bastards (No Cert, IFI, 100 minutes)

Director: Claire Denis.

Stars: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Lola Créton, Isolda Dychauk.

Two Stars*

French filmmaker Claire Denis is an iconoclastic stylist who uses skillful editing and non-linear storylines to subvert the clichés of mainstream movies. Sometimes the results are interesting, other times they're infuriatingly oblique, and sadly, Bastards falls into the latter category. Charismatic character actor Vincent Lindon plays Marco Silvestri, a merchant navy captain who quits his job and returns to Paris when his sister's husband commits suicide. There he falls in love with the unhappy wife of a sinister deviant while searching for his emotionally damaged niece.

Full of haunting night shots, empty roads, and bleating 80s electronic music, Bastards reminded me at times of the work of Rainer Werner Fassbender, but in the end is all style and no substance. Chiara Mastroianni gives an intriguing performance as the listless love interest, and Michel Subor is disturbingly good as the dapper villain, Laporte, but Bastards is an arid intellectual exercise that goes precisely nowhere.

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