critical shaving update

mens-shave-creamI know that all of you in the reading public have been breathlessly awaiting the latest chapter in my shaving odyssey. First, though, a recap:

I had been using an electric razor for a number of years, but late last summer I decided that a) I missed blade shaving, but b) I did not miss the price of store-bought razor cartridges. After looking at several online options, I went for Harry’s, an online startup founded by some of the same people responsible for the eyeglass company Warby Parker.

Harry’s makes a really nice razor – it feels like a quality product, yet the cartridge refills are much cheaper than the major brand sold in stores. Harry’s appears to be doing well – just since last summer, they’ve bought out the German factory that had been supplying their blades. They recently were a sponsor on Leo Laporte’s “This Week In Tech” podcast.

I’ve been very pleased with Harry’s, and I gave a starter kit to a family member whose name I drew for Christmas. For a while, I would post links to their site through their referral program, and as a result I earned four free cartridges a few months back when a friend of mine ordered something using the link. Now, though, they seem to have removed any mention of the referral program from their web site. So I don’t benefit in any way from telling you about them; I just honestly like the product.

The Harry’s starter kit includes not only the razor and cartridges but also a tube of their shaving cream. I liked the shaving cream in a tube, much better than the canned shaving cream or gel I used to use. Instead of a big fluffy layer of foam, you get a very thin, but slick, layer, which I think does a better job.

However, unlike their cartridges, Harry’s shaving cream is not any cheaper than what’s in the stores. In fact, I soon found that Neutrogena made a shaving cream in a tube that was cheaper than Harry’s. Then, I found Every Man Jack, which was even cheaper than Neutrogena.

The trouble with Every Man Jack is that the only place I could find it locally was Walmart – and then Walmart suddenly stopped carrying it. So I went back to Neutrogena, which seems to be in all of the supermarkets and drug stores.

That brings us to this week.

Monday, on a whim, I ended up buying a different brand – one which, like Harry’s, was a startup, although in this case it’s now being sold through regular retail channels. Cremo is a shaving cream in a tube which boasts of being “astonishingly superior” and “impossibly slick.” You only need an almond-sized amount to cover your face. The tube came with a little neck-hanger in which one of the co-founders, whose face and signature are prominently featured, offers a full rebate of the purchase price as an incentive for trying out the product. (“I’ll give you this tube FREE!”) So I bought the tube and sent in my receipt for the rebate.

I tried it this morning and … it’s pretty good. It’s got a citrusy smell, it lubricates well, and I got a nice close shave with it. I’d give it a good review, even compared to Harry’s, Neutrogena or Every Man Jack.

So that’s my latest review.

meeting of minds

I don’t know what made me think of “Meeting of Minds” the other day. I went looking online tonight and found just two short clips on YouTube. The show doesn’t seem to be available on DVD, nor do I believe it’s been rebroadcast since its original run, which is a shame.

“Meeting of Minds,” which ran on PBS in the late 1970s, was the brainchild of Steve Allen. Allen first had the idea in the 50s, and wanted to include it as a segment on a weekly prime time show he was doing at the time. But the sponsor wouldn’t approve. Later, a Canadian show with a similar premise appeared, and Allen even appeared on that show as George Gershwin, a year or two before his own version premiered on PBS. But although the Canadian version predated Allen’s, Allen actually had the idea first.

The premise was a historical talk show, with Allen as host and the guests being actors in character as historical figures from various eras in time. (Allen’s wife Jayne Meadows was a frequent guest, playing a number of different historical figures on different episodes.) I especially remember one episode with Voltaire and Martin Luther as two of the guests. Allen would bring out the first guest, interview them a little while, and then that guest would stay on stage as the next guest came out. There were usually four guests, and so once you had all four of them on stage they’d start to interact with each other. As you can imagine, Voltaire and Martin Luther were not quite in agreement.

The dialogue was based on the actual writings or reported comments of each real person, but they were artfully edited and woven together by Allen (who wrote every episode) into what sounded like natural conversation.

I see on Wikipedia that there was one episode which made a minor deviation from the format. William Shakespeare was paired, not with other historical figures, but with characters from his works. (Jayne Meadows played the “dark lady” from his sonnets.)

I don’t think I saw anywhere near all of the episodes, but I still remember the series vividly, all these years later. I really wish someone would make it available. Wikipedia says that the scripts are available for educational performance or study, and Allen waived any rights to performance royalties because of their educational nature.

Here’s one of the YouTube clips I found:

Who’s next at the ‘late show’?

I have been a fan of David Letterman ever since “Late Night with David Letterman” started on the air in 1982. For years, my shtick at United Methodist singles retreats and Mountain T.O.P. camp events was to do a “Top Ten” list.

I still remember a night back in 1984 when I was feeling hurt and alone because of a romantic disappointment. I was curled up in my bunk in the dorms at ORU. “Late Night” came on. Then, as now, there’s a different humorous introduction of David each night. That night’s introduction, delivered by “Late Night” announcer Bill Wendell: “… and now, a man who’s sick and tired of your whining…. Daaaavid Letterman!”

I nearly fell out of the bunk laughing.

Well, now Dave has announced that he’ll be retiring at some time in 2015. It’s the end of an era – and the beginning of a guessing game about who or what will take that time slot.

I have no knowledge whatsoever, just layman’s guesses from watching the late night scene over the past three decades. Let’s look at some of the names that have come up tonight:

Craig Ferguson: Supposedly, Craig’s contract includes a clause giving him the right to succeed Letterman, but CBS could almost certainly pay him off if they went another direction. I could be wrong – my brother in North Carolina and I are in disagreement on the issue – but I’m not really convinced he really wants the pressure and network supervision that a move to the earlier, more high-profile time slot would entail. He would have to rein in certain aspects of his comedy. He saw what happened to Conan O’Brien when Conan tried to move his show intact to the earlier hour and resisted network interference.

It’s true that Dave himself struggled to translate his comedy from the late time slot to the earlier time slot when he moved from NBC to CBS. I was faithful to him all the way through, but there was a period when he struggled creatively. He ultimately emerged with a quite different kind of show than “Late Night” had been, but there were definitely growing pains – and in the current, much-more-competitive environment, the network suits don’t have as much patience for growing pains.

I think Craig will get some sort of raise out of this, but ultimately CBS will go another direction. After all, Craig was losing consistently to Jimmy Fallon when they were both on in the late time slot, and the network has to be concerned he would lose to Jimmy in the earlier time slot.

Stephen Colbert: An immensely-talented man who could probably break new ground in the time slot. But the question is, would he bring along “Stephen Colbert,” the character he plays so brilliantly in his current venue? Would “Stephen Colbert” translate well to an hour-long talk show format? And if not, would people be confused to see Stephen Colbert instead of “Stephen Colbert”? Then again, maybe Colbert is capable of blowing up the format entirely and creating something new that would suit him and/or his alter ego.

Jon Stewart: He’s denied any interest in such jobs in the past, and rightfully so. He has the perfect format and forum for his talents. Sure, there’s a potential to earn more money on a broadcast network, but Jon’s smart enough to know that money isn’t everything.

Tina Fey / Amy Poehler: While either might be momentarily intrigued by the idea of breaking new ground, I don’t think either is looking for the nightly grind of a talk show, especially Fey, who is now branching out as a writer and producer.

Aisha Tyler: I’ve enjoyed her since “Talk Soup” and think she’d be great. I’m shocked at some of the online vitriol directed at her by people who still want Drew Carey to host “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” But you can find online vitriol directed at just about anyone if you look hard enough. I don’t know if the network suits are willing to bet the farm on her (and lose her from “The Talk”), but I think she’d be a smart choice.

Chelsea Handler: Coincidentally (at least, I think it’s a coincidence), she just announced she’s leaving her E! network show. She’s undoubtedly talented and funny. She would probably have to tone down certain aspects of her bad-girl image for this kind of network gig – as Conan learned during his brief tenure on “The Tonight Show,” the network must not only worry about ratings but about individual affiliate stations, some of them located in parts of the country where Chelsea’s brand of humor may not play as well. I have no doubt that she could do that and still be funny – but would she want to?

Jay Leno: I don’t think this is going to happen. I just don’t. Jay could still get good ratings for a few years, but if the network is going to build up a new show from scratch, they’re going to want a long-term investment — someone younger, and someone with more of an eye towards social media and the younger demographic.

Louis C.K. – a former writer for the Letterman show. I’m not sure he’d do it, because he’s gotten used to a high degree of creative control with his FX show and his self-distributed standup specials that I don’t think CBS would give him in this case.

Format change – The ratings for all the late night talk shows have been declining in recent years, because the sought-after younger demographic isn’t locked into the format and would just as happily watch Adult Swim. ABC and NBC have tried to buck the trend with younger hosts, but maybe CBS will decide to go some complete other direction – a reality show or a game show or some different comedy format or the night-time equivalent to “Today” or “Good Morning America.” I don’t necessarily think this is likely, but I do think it’s possible.

I am guessing that if CBS does stay with a talk show, it will be based in Los Angeles rather than the Ed Sullivan Theater. Moving to L.A. would help restore the balance that was upset when “Tonight” moved east. Currently, Fallon, Seth Meyers and Dave are all in the loop for movie stars on the New York leg of their publicity tours. Dave’s successor will, I think, go to the West Coast.

Some have speculated that CBS has been preparing for this moment and may already have someone waiting in the wings, ready to be announced after a respectful interval. In any case, it should be an interesting few months. Bill Carter, the New York Times writer who has been the unofficial historian of late night, should be busy.

My podcast appearance

Last week, I visited Michael Hansen and my former castmate Brenden Taylor for a taping of their podcast “Finding Christ in Cinema,” which looks for religious allegories and talking points in secular films. My original intent was to interview them for a story, which I did, but they also invited me to sit in as a guest on the podcast, and I did that too. Logrolling? Maybe. But I enjoyed it, and think I got a good story out of it, too.

Being a guest on the podcast was fun — I probably should have leaped into the discussion more often than I did, but I was kind of feeling my way around. I have an invitation to come back some time, and I think I’ll probably be a little more comfortable and a little more vocal whenever I do. It will have to be the right movie, though.

Anyway, my episode can be found here. You can listen to it from that page or click for a little popout player that you can then minimize so that you don’t forget and close it by mistake.

I’ve said here in the past that I’d love to have some sort of podcast. But (except for the short-lived talk show I did on WLIJ some years back) it’s been nearly 30 years since my radio days, and last week reminded me that filling air time is harder than it looks. My experiments, such as the little pilot episode I did in 2011 for a faith-based interview podcast — have also been very low-tech. Michael has a nice home studio, and you can hear it in the quality of the product he produces. I’m not in a position to even pay for hosting right now, much less equipment.

I’ve also never really settled on what I want to do. The more marketable ideas are also more restrictive; what I really want is the freedom to play, but that quickly becomes self-indulgent and not interesting to other people, which sort of defeats the purpose. The podcasts I really enjoy listening to are hosted by comedians or other creative people who have good content, but even when they stray from the content they can make stream-of-consciousness interesting to someone other than themselves. They also have a lot of access to good guests, sidekicks or interview subjects to play off of.

But I can still dream. Maybe one of these days, I’ll come up with a format or premise that I can run with.

Seth and pete

I was excited about the premiere of “Late Night with Seth Meyers” last night, of course, but I was also excited about the return of “The Pete Holmes Show,” which had been on hiatus for a couple of months but which TBS happily picked up for a new season. It’s times like these I’m happy for the DVR — I don’t need to stay up for Seth every night, as I did last night.

I watched Seth’s monologue and the comedy bit about Venn diagrams last night, then today I watched the Amy Poehler interview. I didn’t watch the Joe Biden interview – I’ve come to agree with pop culture blogger Mark Evanier about political figures on the entertainment-oriented late night network talk shows. Republican or Democrat, they come on, field a few softball questions, and rack up some unearned good will by appearing to be a good sport. Again agreeing with Evanier, I don’t think the answer is for the late night hosts to ask tougher questions – for the most part they aren’t qualified to be journalists. I don’t think office-holders need to be making the rounds of the entertainment shows to begin with.

Anyway, I enjoyed what I saw of Seth’s show.

I had been watching Fallon last night duirng Pete Holmes’ season premiere, so that, too, had to wait until today. (I watched it this morning while getting ready for work, as was my habit during his last run of episodes.) Holmes is a mystery – like another late-night comic, Craig Ferguson, he can careen from thoughtful intelligence to silly, sophomoric (but never mean-spirited) vulgarity in a heartbeat. Holmes comes from a religious background, and while he appears to have rejected the traditional Christianity I still hold dear, he’s still fascinated by spirituality and spiritual issues, much more so than any current comedian with whom I’m familiar. He had controversial author and former pastor Rob Bell on his podcast for a serious interview, then later featured him on the TV show in a comedy bit about surfing.

I think he fired just about all of the X-Men during his first run of episodes, but I hope he finds some use for his sharp-tongued Professor X during the new season. Maybe he could fire the other Marvel superheroes too.

Like sands through the hourglass

It just occurred to me that the end of the Jay Leno “Tonight Show” a week or two ago might have been the end of an era — I wasn’t sure if it was the last production in the Burbank Studios, formerly owned by NBC. NBC sold the studio in 2008 and gradually moved most of its production to Universal Studios (which is now, of course, part of the same company as NBC). During Conan O’Brien’s short tenure as host of “The Tonight Show,” he broadcast from a studio on the Universal lot. I read just now that Conan’s old studio is now the home of “Chelsea Lately.”

Jay Leno, however, was comfortable in the Burbank facility and stayed there throughout both of his runs at “The Tonight Show” and the short-lived “Jay Leno Show.”

It turns out Jay wasn’t the last NBC star to leave the ship; Wikipedia says that “Access Hollywood” and “Days of Our Lives” are still being shot at the Burbank facility.

I got to tour the studios in the year 2000 when visiting my brother and sister-in-law in California. (I may have told this story before.) Our tour guide told us the story about Jay Leno and the studios.

When Jay first took over “The Tonight Show” in the early 1990s, he went into the same large stage where Johnny Carson had been presiding since moving the show from New York to California. Johnny, who got his start in radio, was used to not being able to see his audience, and he was far enough away from the bleachers, with bright TV lights shining in his eyes, that he didn’t see them when doing his monologue. Jay, who got his start in comedy clubs with the audience at his feet, was never comfortable with that arrangement. During a week of “Tonight Shows” on the road in New York, he found himself in a much smaller studio and noticed a change in his energy level. Upon returning to California, he asked to move onto one of the smaller stages in the Burbank complex, and a special platform was built so that during his monologue, he would be much, much closer to the audience than he had been. He could even shake hands with them as he took his mark. Jay became more relaxed in his new surroundings and eventually started beating David Letterman in the ratings.

We did not get to see the “Tonight Show” studio that day – they were doing sound check or something at the time of our tour. But at the time, they took you into the parking lot to see Jay’s parking space, and which of his many vehicles he’d driven to work that day. We went out, and gawked, and as we turned around to go back inside there was a man standing on the loading dock from which we’d emerged, smoking a cigarette.

It was – no kidding – Maury Povich, who was taping the first few episodes of his revival of “Twenty-One” that day. (Someone in the gift shop had tried to recruit us for the audience, but we already had tickets for a sitcom over on the Warner Brothers lot that evening.) Maury saw the tour group looking at him, tossed his cigarette and ducked back into the building.

There were murals outside some of the stages of famous shows that had been shot on those stages, and the one of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” made me think of Gary Owens, hand cupped to his ear, announcing that the program originated from “beautiful downtown Burbank.” (This was sarcasm; Burbank is neither particularly beautiful nor does it have a noticeable downtown.)

Steve Allen did his version of “The Tonight Show” from Rockefeller Center in New York, where Jimmy Fallon has just taken over. But this is from some other prime time show or special that Steverino shot in Burbank, and I like the way it makes use of the corridors, which actually still looked a lot like this in 2000:

Anyway, I don’t know if the current owners of the Burbank Studios give tours, but if they do, and if you’re in Southern California, you need to stop by. It’s a pop culture historic site if ever there was one.

now is the podcast of our discontent

I was excited when Alton Brown, former host of “Good Eats” and current host of half of Food Network’s repetetive, overblown food-competition shows, started his own podcast. I even wrote a glowing story about it that was included in our Times-Gazette cookbook, a story about which I was reminded day before yesterday when I was looking at one of the cookbooks we’d set aside as a contest entry.

But I think I’m now officially disenchanted.

To backtrack a bit: “Good Eats” started on the Food Network in 1999 and ran for 11 years. Reruns still air regularly on Cooking Channel (a sister channel to Food Network). It remains one of my favorite things ever on television. It was a half-hour cooking show which combined recipes, science, sketch comedy and jury-rigged cooking contraptions. It won a Peabody Award, and Alton won a James Beard award for his work as creator and host.

During the run of “Good Eats,” Alton also had several outstanding food travelogues presented in miniseries format: two runs of “Feasting on Asphalt” (Alton and his crew traveled by motorcycle), and one of “Feasting on Waves” (because it’s hard to travel the Carribbean by motorcycle).

When Food Network, which had run and rerun episodes of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” created its own version, “Iron Chef America,” Alton was signed as host – and that was fine with me at the time; I had been a big fan of the original Japanese show, and Alton brought a lot of his wit and knowledge to his “play-by-play” commentary. But, over time, Food Network became all about the competition shows. “Iron Chef America” doesn’t appeal to me at all anymore, nor do any of the other shows, all of which seem to blend together: “The Next Iron Chef,” “Cutthroat Kitchen,” “Food Network Star,” all of them involving Alton in some way or another, plus others like “Chopped,” “The Worst Cooks In America,” and on and on and on. (And on and on.) Someone is apparently watching them, but I have long since gotten sick and tired of them.

When “Good Eats” wrapped up, I figured Alton would be back with some different but equally-imaginative project in a year or two, and that all of these reality shows he was hosting were just helping pay the bills (which I completely understand).

Then, Alton launched his podcast, on the well-established Nerdist podcast network, and I was thrilled. The podcast originally had sort of a magazine format, including cooking tips that would have been at home on “Good Eats” as well as listener questions, along with an interview segment.

Over time, however, all of the other segments have been de-emphasized and the interview segment is now pretty much the whole podcast. That would be OK if the interview subjects were great – and a few of them are, such as the fellow from Nashville’s Olive & Sinclair Chocolates a few episodes back. But too many of them are either tied in with Alton’s competition shows and/or chances to reminisce about the behind-the-scenes production of “Good Eats.” Alton apparently does not share my feelings about the competition shows; based on the interviews, he’s still excited to host as many of them as they’ll throw his way. As a huge fan of “Good Eats,” I enjoy some of the behind-the-scenes stuff, but there’s been an over-reliance on it. I’m not as interested in “Good Eats” as I am in the next “Good Eats,” whatever that turns out to be.

This week’s episode is an interview with the production manager for Alton’s live tour – again, not a bad idea in and of itself, but in the context of where the show has been headed it just means another episode without any real food content, since the interview is the entire show.

I don’t guess I have much room to complain about a free, and advertising-free, podcast. It’s just that the podcast, when it first started, seemed like it might be appointment listening in the same way “Good Eats” was appointment viewing. And it’s not. Alton, you need to be doing something more worthy of your talent.

jiro dreams of sushi

I re-activated my Netflix subscription at the first of the year, but in the past few days – after seeing a $15 per month jump in my DirecTV bill – I’ve been thinking of cancelling it again. But this morning I watched something absolutely sensational on Netflix: the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Here’s a trailer:

Jiro Ono, who was 85 when the documentary was made in 2011, operates perhaps the world’s finest sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, located in Tokyo. It’s small – only 10 seats – and doesn’t even have its own restrooms. The style of service means a meal only takes about 15 minutes, and it costs 30,000 yen (about $300). Even so, you have to make reservations far in advance. It has three stars from Michelin, meaning it’s so good that Michelin would recommend you travel to that country just to eat at that restaurant.

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” beautifully shot, edited and scored, tells the story of Jiro Ono and his two sons. It’s about food, but it’s also about Japanese culture, family dynamics, the pursuit of excellence, and even about the environment and sustainability. Jiro never really knew his own father, who left when he was about 6 or 7. But he has tried to communicate his passion and sense of purpose to both of his sons, who follow in his footsteps – the younger already operates a cheaper branch of the family restaurant, while the older – in his 50s – will eventually take over the original location, knowing he’ll have to work twice as hard if he ever wants to step out of his father’s shadow. (Pay close attention, near the end of the movie, for a fact about the Michelin rating that sheds new light on the elder son’s status.)

There’s no narration, but all of the participants speak Japanese, so  you have to be OK with subtitles.

Dang it, now I’m hungry for sushi.

Jimmy and the muppets

Here was how “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” ended its run Friday night:

In case you don’t know, there’s a connection between Jimmy and the Muppets, one I read about a couple of years ago and which Jimmy explained briefly Friday night. Many years ago, the Muppets were set to appear on the “Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. They had to be at 30 Rock quite early, for rehearsals or some such, and ended up with some time to kill. Jim Henson, Frank Oz and some others at one point ended up killing time by painting Muppet-like faces on some exposed pipes that were part of the building’s heating system. No one thought anything of it; they were just killing time.

The painted characters remained there for decades. When “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” was on, and Jimmy Fallon was a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” the pipes were in a closet in the dressing room used by Max Weinberg, then Conan’s bandleader. Jimmy saw them and was amazed, and he would bring friends and family to see them, an annoyance about which Weinberg was apparently good-natured.

When Jimmy took over “Late Night,” he wanted to see that the characters were preserved, and he got NBC to do some remodeling. Some walls were moved so that the pipes were no longer in anyone’s dressing room, and in fact they could be shown to the public as part of the 30 Rock tour. When Frank Oz appeared on the show, and Jimmy showed him the characters, he was moved to tears by the fact that they were still there after all these years.

I just think that’s a neat story.

Jimmy’s “Tonight Show” will be done in that same area of 30 Rock, in the same studio Jimmy used for most of his “Late Night” run. “Late Night” moved to a smaller studio a few months ago so that the larger one could be renovated and expanded for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” So the Muppets will continue to be Jimmy’s neighbors for a while to come.

monuments men

Last summer, my brother and sister-in-law here in Tennessee gave me a Regal Cinemas gift card for my birthday so that I could go see “Star Trek Into Darkness.” May was a crazy month, between symphony stuff and Relay For Life stuff, and I never got around to it. Being unattached, I don’t get out to the movies that often. When I had the time there wasn’t anything in the theater I wanted to see, and when there was something I wanted to see I could never find the time.

This month, however, I’ve been wanting to see “The Monuments Men.” I love the premise, I love the cast, and I’m a big admirer of “Good Night, And Good Luck,” an earlier fact-based movie directed and co-written by George Clooney. So today, I got away from work a little early (I have some stuff to cover this weekend) and drove to Tullahoma for the 3:50 p.m. screening.

I haven’t read any actual reviews of the movie yet, but I saw something last night that indicated some critics don’t like it. If that’s the case, I have to disagree with those critics. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Monuments Men.” I would go see it again if I had the chance.

While it’s based on real situations, and some of its characters are (renamed) versions of real people, I don’t know how accurate it is as blow-by-blow history. But as entertainment, for me anyway, it was a grand slam home run.

I suspect most of you know the basic premise, and the cast in various permutations have been blanketing various talk shows for the past couple of weeks, but in case you don’t know, the movie is set during World War II, primarily after the Normandy invasion, when all sides could see the writing on the wall but there was still a perilous journey to get there. The Nazis had been accumulating billions of dollars worth of priceless artworks from the countries they’d invaded and from the Jews in their own country. This artwork was intended to eventually be displayed in a massive “Fuhrer Museum” in Hitler’s home town.

With the end of the war looming, there are several dangers – that the Nazis might destroy the artifacts out of spite, that the Allies might bomb them accidentally, or that the Soviets might re-steal them and keep them for themselves, with the supposed moral justification of their heavy casualties.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) convinces FDR of the necessity to preserve these priceless cultural artifacts, even if it involves risk. The authorities aren’t convinced enough to commit much in the way of resources, but they allow Clooney to put together a team of experts, played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin (“The Artist,” which I saw for the first time on Netflix just a few weeks ago), Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”). The men are a bit too old to be regular soldiers but gamely go through basic training and are dispatched to Europe. There, with the help of a young German-speaking soldier (played by Dimitri Leonidas, who’s gotten little mention but who’s terrific) and a cynical Frenchwoman (Cate Blanchett), they attempt to track down and preserve as much of the artwork as they can, returning it to its original owners if possible.

Some in the military to whom Clooney and his team turn for help see this as a ridiculous distraction and an insult to the brave young soldiers risking their lives around the world. But Clooney and his team passionately believe that the cultural identity of the conquered nations is one of the very things the Nazis had been trying to destroy – and therefore one of the very things that was most worth fighting for. They see themselves not simply as preserving dusty old works of art but as preserving part of what it means to be a human being.

I knew going in that this was part of the message of the movie and was afraid it would be driven home with a sledgehammer. Remember Clooney’s famously-arrogant Oscar speech, in which he seemed, on behalf of the entertainment industry, to take credit for every social advance of the past century? Even Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park,” who owed Clooney their careers, made fun of that speech as a dangerous “cloud of smug” which figured into the cataclysmic plot of one “South Park” episode.

But, no, while this movie has a message (and a good one), it works first and foremost as entertainment. The bravado of Clooney’s team and the relationships between various team members made me think of classic movie director Howard Hawks, who would probably have enjoyed this movie greatly. I particularly loved the Mutt-and-Jeff relationship between Bill Murray’s and Bob Balaban’s characters. I would watch a movie just about the two of them.

In fact, if the movie has a flaw, it’s that the cast is so big, with so many great actors, that you wish you could get to know some of the characters a little bit better, especially the two who leave the action before we get to the end.

I highly recommend this movie. I had a great time.