“NATIONAL TREASURE” (2004) Review

 

“NATIONAL TREASURE” (2004) Review

Ten years ago, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub got together with the Disney Studios and created an adventure/heist that delved deeply into American history . . . namely the American Revolution called “NATIONAL TREASURE”.

The movie begins in 1974, when a ten year-old Benjamin Franklin Gates searches for relics inside the attic of his grandfather John Adams Gates’ Washington D.C. home. Heartened by his grandson’s enthusiasm, old Mr. Gates reveals a family legend about valuable and ancient treasures that had been gathered since Ancient Egypt. When the treasure falls into the hands of the Freemason during the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers go out of their way to hide it from the British. They left one clue – a scrap of paper with the inscription, “the secret lies with Charlotte” – in the hands of their colleague Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland. The latter tries to deliver the clue to President Andrew Jackson, but gives it to his driver, an adolescent named Thomas Gates, who happened to be an ancestor of Ben’s family. Although his father Patrick Gates disapproves of treasure hunting, Ben becomes obsessed with the “National Treasure”.

Nearly three decades later, Ben (who is now a historian and amateur cryptologist) recruits a young computer expert named Riley Poole and Ian Howe, a wealthy British financier, to search for the Charlotte. The three men, along with Ian’s employees, find an old eighteenth ship called the U.S.S. Charlotte trapped in the Arctic ice. Instead of the treasure, Ben discovers a meerschaum pipe hidden in a barrel of gunpowder in the cargo hold. An engraved riddle is found on the pipe’s stem, which Ben believes is a clue to an invisible map written on the back of the Declaration of Independence. When Ian reveals his criminal past and willingness to steal the Declaration of Independence, he and Ben have a falling out. Upon their return to Washington D.C., Ben and Riley try to warn various Federal agencies, including one Abigail Chase of the National Archives, but no one believes them. The pair decides that the only way to prevent the Declaration from getting into Ian’s hands is to steal the document themselves. This decision leads Ben, Riley and eventually Abigail on adventure that takes them from the nation’s capital to New York City’s financial center in an effort to find the treasure and prevent it from falling into Ian’s hands.

“NATIONAL TREASURE” received mixed reviews when it first hit the theaters ten years ago. On a certain level, I can understand. The idea of a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence sound rather ludicrous. Even more ludicrous is the idea of a pair of pair of spectacles with multiple colored lenses hidden behind an Independence Hall brick and used to read the “hidden map”. But the most ludicrous aspect from the screenplay written by Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio is the fact that Ben and Riley did not face criminal charges for stealing the Declaration of Independence in the first place. If I had been Ian Howe, I would have sued the F.B.I. Also, “NATIONAL TREASURE” did reek with the whole “Disneyanna-style” of American History that you can find at the corporation’s various amusement theme parks. The history depicted in the film seemed more intent upon putting the Founding Fathers on a pedestal, instead of engaging in a more realistic exploration of American history. This beautification of history is reflected in a good deal of star Nicholas Cage’s dialogue.

On the hand, “NATIONAL TREASURE” did reveal some nice tidbits of American history, especially from the Revolution period. Even the Riley Poole character managed to put in his two cents in one scene that I found particularly humorous. Speaking of humor, I cannot deny that I found the movie rather funny. I wonder if this could be attributed to Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio being two of the movie’s screenwriters. After all, they were responsible for a great deal of the humor found in the “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” movie franchise. Although most of the cast managed to get in a few funny lines, a good deal of the humor came from the exchanges between Nicholas Cage and Justin Bartha. Once Diane Kruger’s character joined the search for the treasure, a very funny and dynamic trio became complete. But the best aspect of “NATIONAL TREASURE” proved to be its story. The screenwriters did a first-rate job in combining the many aspects of the movie’s plot – adventure, comedy, historical mystery and heist film. And they managed to combine these aspects in a seamless manner that still astounds me to this day. No wonder I find this movie so enjoyable to watch . . . even after a decade.

But it was not merely the movie’s plot that made “NATIONAL TREASURE” so enjoyable to watch. It is also a very beautiful-looking film. I have to give credit to several people. One of those responsible for the movie’s visual style was cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. I found his photography not only beautiful, but sharp, colorful and rather original . . . as shown in the following images:

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Also responsible for the movie’s visual style was production designer Norris Spencer, who did an excellent job of combining the movie’s current day setting and the historical flashbacks. William Goldenberg did a more than admirable job with the film’s editing. This was especially apparent in certain action scenes like the original heist at the National Archives, the van chase in Washington D.C., the foot chase in Philadelphia and the tunnels beneath Trinity Church in New York City.

Aside from the movie’s narrative, my favorite aspect of “NATIONAL TREASURE” proved to be the performances by the cast. I do not know if I would regard Benjamin Gates as one of Nicholas Gates’ best roles. But it is certainly one of my favorites. What I liked about Cage’s performance is that he injected so much energy and passion into the role that in many ways, he reminded me of why I enjoy History so much. On the other hand, Justin Bartha provided an entertaining contrast to Cage’s passionate historian with his witty and sardonic dialogue. I also enjoyed how Bartha’s Riley Poole seemed to project a long-suffering attitude toward Ben’s occasional over-the-top passion for History. “NATIONAL TREASURE” was the first time I saw Diane Kruger in any production – movie or television. I realized that ten years ago, most critics did not have a high opinion of her. I never understood why. Not only did she give a very charming and skillful performance as Abigail Chase, the National Archives historian who gets dragged into Ben and Riley’s treasure hunt, she clicked very well with both Cage and Bartha.

I have seen Sean Bean in just about every kind of role possible – as a hero, an anti-hero, a pathetic dweeb and finally as a villain. I have to say that Ian Howe has to be one of the most interesting . . . and likable villains he has ever portrayed. I liked how Bean not only conveyed the villainous aspects of his character, but also Howe’s friendliness, intelligence, subtlety and loyalty to his men. Jon Voight gave a surprisingly complex and interesting performance as Ben Gates’ skeptical historian father, Patrick Gates, who enthusiasm for treasure hunter declined to the point of cynicism. Voight provided a good deal of give-and-take not only for Cage, but also Christopher Plummer, who portrayed his father, John Gates. Speaking of Plummer, his appearance in the movie was brief, but also very entertaining and memorable . . . at least for me. I thought he did a pretty good job in setting up the film’s narrative with his verbal description of the Templar treasure. Harvey Keitel surprisingly proved to be the movie’s backbone as the no-nonsense F.B.I. Special Agent Peter Sadusky. He gave a quiet, grounded and slightly sardonic performance that proved to be rather comforting. “NATIONAL TREASURE” also featured solid supporting performances from the likes of David Dayan Fisher (“24”), Mark Pellegrino (“LOST”), Stephen Pope, Oleg Taktarov, Ron Canada (“THE WEST WING”), Annie Parisse (“THE PACIFIC” and“PERSONS OF INTEREST”), Dahn Ballard, Yves Michel-Beneche and especially Sharon Wilkins, who was hilarious as a sarcastic female butcher at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

What else can I say about “NATIONAL TREASURE”? It is not perfect. And there are times when the plot came off as illogical. But after ten years, I believe it is one of the more entertaining live-action Disney movies I have ever seen. And I have to thank director Jon Turteltaub, a talented crew and first-rate acting from a cast led by Nicholas Cage.

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“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” (1975) Review

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“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” (1975) Review

Over four decades ago, 1969 to be precise, a play written by novelist Barry England was first staged at the Theater Royal in Bristol, England. Set during the height of the British Empire, England’s play focused upon an Army regiment stationed in India. The play became a hit and was eventually adapted into a movie released to the public in 1975.

“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” begins with two young British officers arriving in Indian to join a prestigious regiment. Lieutenant Drake comes from a middle-class background and is eager to make the right impression. Lieutenant Millington is the son of a General and does not seem enthusiastic over the idea of a military career. He plans to leave the Army at the first opportunity. While Drake manages to make a positive impression with his fellow officers, Millington antagonizes them with his cynical behavior, causing the other officers to dislike him. A military ceremony takes place, honoring the deceased members of the regiment and their widows, including Mrs. Marjorie Scarlett, whose husband won a posthumous Victoria Cross after being killed during a battle on the North-West Frontier.

Later that evening, the regiment holds a ball. The younger officers take part in a ceremonial tradition that involves the pursuit and sticking of a pig in the mess. Lieutenant Millington tries to charm Mrs. Scarlett, but is lightly dismissed. Later, the disheveled widow bursts into the mess, claiming to have been attack. She identifies Milington as her attacker. During an evening in the mess, involving the younger officers taking part in a ceremonial tradition that involves the pursuit and sticking of a pig, Mrs Scarlett runs in claiming to have been attacked, and identifies Lieutenant Millington as her attacker. Although he is innocent, Millington sees the potential disgrace as an easy way to leave the Army and return to England. He does not bother to cooperate with Drake, who has been selected to defend him at his secret trial. But when both men realize that Millington might suffer a more serious punishment other than a dishonorable discharge and Drake discovers that another widow had been similarily attacked six months earlier, the latter officer goes out of his way to clear Millington.

I have not seen “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” for a good number of years – over a decade and a half, to be exact. I recall being very impressed when I last saw it a long time ago. I still am – to a certain extent. But there were two aspects of the movie that left me feeling a little unsettled. One of them focused upon the movie’s setting. With the exception of the first ten to fifteen minutes, most of“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” was either set in the regiment’s mess, other exterior shots or on the cantoment grounds, which could have easily been shot on a sounstage. By the time the movie ended, I felt as if I had watched a filmed play. And I never could understand Lieutenant Millington’s original attitude toward the charges against him. I mean . . . this is the Victorian Age we are talking about in which women – especially white upper and middle-class women – were put on pedestals by men. I could understand Millington’s attitude if he had been accused of assaulting the other acknowledged victim in the story – an Indian soldier’s widow named Mrs. Bandanai. But surely he should have realized that he could have suffered serious repercussion for assaulting someone as cherished as Mrs. Scarlett, right off the bat.

Despite these shortcomings, I must admit that “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” is a first-rate movie. Playwright Barry England wrote a tantalizing peek into the world of British India that featured not only a psychological drama, but also a very interesting mystery and the damages causes by misogyny and racism (in the case of Mrs. Bandanai) that was rampant during the Victorian Age (as well as now). I feel that England created a murder mystery that would have done Agatha Christie proud. I also feel that Robert Enders did an excellent job in adapting England’s play.

The movie began with a great set-up of the mystery – the ceremony honoring the dead Captain Scarlett and the other men who died with him, intertwining with with the arrivals of Lieutenants Drake and Millington at the regiment’s cantonment. The movie also had a rather creepy scene that featured the younger officers engaged in the “stick-the-pig-in-the-anal” game, which foreshadowed the attack on Mrs. Scarlett later in the evening. But what I really admired about the film is that it did not make it easy for the audience to guess the identity of Mrs. Scarlett’s attacker. For that I am truly grateful. If there is one kind of mystery I cannot abide is one that gives away the culprit’s identity prematurely.

“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” also benefited from a first-rate cast. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of James Faulkner (who portrayed Millington), Michael Culver, Rafiq Anwar, Persis Khambatta and James Donald. Christopher Plummer gave an interesting performance as the intimidating Major Alastair Wimbourne. Although there were moments when I found his performance a little theatrical. I certainly cannot accuse Trevor Howard’s performance as theatrical. He gave an appropriately poignant performance as the regiment’s aging commander, who finds it difficult to accept a possible scandal within his command. Richard Attenborough proved to be equally complex as Major Lionel E. Roach, who seemed to live and breathe the regiment. I was surprised to see Stacy Keach in this cast as Captain Harper, the officer charged with prosecuting Millington. He did an excellent job in developing his character from the hard-nosed, blindingly loyal officer, to one who finds himself appalled by the possibility of a serial attacker. Susannah York gave a superb role as the enticing Mrs. Scarlett, who seemed first amused by Millington’s attempt at seduction and later, angry over what happened to her. But the film actually belonged to Michael York, who more than carried his weight as the main character. I was impressed by how he managed to dominate this film, while retaining his character’s quiet and reserved nature.

Would I consider “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” a classic? I do not know. I certainly would not consider it a candidate for a Best Picture nomination. And it certainly had its flaws. But due to its first-rate story, solid direction from Michael Anderson and an excellent cast led by Michael York, I still would consider it a very good story that is worth viewing time and again.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1910s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1910s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1910s

1-Mary Poppins

1. “Mary Poppins” (1964) – Walt Disney personally produced this Oscar winning musical adaptation of P.L. Travers’ book series about a magical nanny who helps change the lives of a Edwardian family. Directed by Robert Stevenson, the movie starred Oscar winner Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

2-Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

2. “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” (1965) – Ken Annakin directed this all-star comedy about a 1910 air race from London to Paris, sponsored by a newspaper magnate. Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox and Terry-Thomas starred.

3-Titanic

3. “Titanic” (1953) – Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb starred in this melodrama about an estranged couple and their children sailing on the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic. Jean Negulesco directed.

4-Eight Men Out

4. “Eight Men Out” (1988) – John Sayles wrote and directed this account of Black Sox scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. John Cusack, David Strathairn and D.B. Sweeney starred.

5-A Night to Remember

5. “A Night to Remember” (1958) – Roy Ward Baker directed this adaptation of Walter Lord’s book about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Kenneth More starred.

6-The Shooting Party

6. “The Shooting Party” (1985) – Alan Bridges directed this adaptation of Isabel Colegate’s 1981 novel about a group of British aristocrats who have gathered for a shooting party on the eve of World War I. James Mason, Edward Fox, Dorothy Tutin and John Gielgud starred.

7-The Music Man

7. “The Music Man” (1962) – Robert Preston and Shirley Jones starred in this film adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s 1957 Broadway musical about a con man scamming a small Midwestern town into providing money for a marching band. Morton DaCosta directed.

8-My Fair Lady

8. “My Fair Lady” (1964) – Oscar winner George Cukor directed this Best Picture winner and adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s 1956 Broadway musical about an Edwardian phonetics professor who sets out to transform a Cockney flower girl into a respected young lady to win a bet. Audrey Hepburn and Oscar winner Rex Harrison starred.

9-Paths of Glory

9. “Paths of Glory” (1957) – Stanley Kubrick directed this adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s anti-war novel about a French Army officer who defends three soldiers who refused to participate in a suicidal attack during World War I. Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready starred.

10-Somewhere in Time

10. “Somewhere in Time” (1980) – Jeannot Szwarc directed this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1975 time travel novel called “Bid Time Return”. Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer starred.

“THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO” (2011) Review

 

“THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO” (2011) Review

My awareness of Stieg Larsson’s posthumous 2005 novel, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” began when it first hit the bookstores, years ago. And it has not abated. And yet . . . I have never developed an interest to read it. Silly me. Even when a movie adaptation of the novel was first released in Sweden back in 2009, I noticed . . . and continued to resist buying the novel. That all changed when I saw this new English-speaking adaptation, directed by David Fincher. 

If I must be honest, it was the trailer for Fincher’s movie that finally made me interested in Larsson’s novel. One, it featured two favorite actors of mine – Daniel Craig and Stellan Skarsgård. Two, I have developed a growing interest in David Fincher’s work, ever since I saw his 2007 movie, “ZODIAC”. And three, I must admit that the trailer looked damn interesting. So, I went to the theaters to watch “THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO”. And I do not regret my decision. I loved it. And now I have plans to read the novel.

“THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO” is about a Swedish investigative journalist named Mikael Blomkvist hired by a wealthy industrialist named Henrik Vanger to investigate the 40-year disappearance of the latter’s 16 year-old niece, Harriet. Blomkvist is assisted by young computer hacker and researcher for Milton Security named Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth had been originally hired by Vanger’s attorney to do a background check on Blomkvist. Both Lisbeth and Blomkvist find themselves residing inside a small house on the Vangers’ island estate. During their investigation, they meet other members of the Vanger family – including two brothers who were members of the Swedish Nazi Party, Henrik’s nieces Cecilia and Anita, and his nephew, Martin, now CEO of the family business.

While Lisbeth and Blomkvist investigate the Vanger family, each deal with a personal dilemma. Lisbeth became a legal ward of the state, after she was diagnosed with mental incompetency years ago, has to deal with new guardian Nils Bjurman, who turned out to be a sexual predator and rapist. Blomkvist found himself working for Henrik Vanger, after he lost a libel case brought against him by a crooked businessman named Hans-Erik Wennerström. Blomkvist and the magazine he co-owns with his lover/editor Erika Berger, owe Wennerstrom a huge court-ordered monetary damages. Despite their problems, Lisbeth and Blomkvist continue their investigation into the Vanger family. Eventually, they discover that a member of the family is serial rapist and killer, who has assaulted a number of Jewish women over a twenty years period since the 1940s. The last victim was killed a year after Harriet’s disappearance.

There is so much about this movie that I really enjoyed. One, Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian did a superb job of adapting Larsson’s tale with great detail, while maintaining a steady pace. This is not an easy thing for a filmmaker to accomplish – especially for a movie with a running time of 158 minutes. And the ironic thing is that Zaillian’s script was not completely faithful to Larsson’s novel. Not that I really care. I doubt that the 2009 adaptation, which I have also seen, was completely faithful. I thought that Fincher and Zaillian did a marvelous job of re-creating the details (as much as possible) of Larsson’s tale, along with the novel’s intriguing characters and atmosphere. There were changes that Larsson and Zaillian made to some of the characters – especially Mikael Blomkvist, Martin Vanger and Anita Vanger. And do I care? Again, no. These changes did not mar my enjoyment of the film, whatsoever.

The moment the movie began with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ dazzling score and Blur Studio’s title designs, a feeling overcame me that I was about to watch a very interesting film. Reznor and Ross’ score managed to earn Golden Globe nomination. Unfortunately, they did not earn an Academy Award. Too bad. It was one of the most interesting movie scores I have seen in years. Jeff Cronenweth, on the other hand, managed to earn an Academy Award for his cinematography. And it was well deserved, as far as I am concerned. I really enjoyed Cronenweth’s sharp and atmospheric photography of Sweden’s countryside and Stockholm. I also enjoyed Trish Summerville’s costume designs for the movie – especially her Goth-style costumes for Rooney Mara and the stylish wardrobe that both Daniel Craig and Stellan Skarsgård wore.

I might as well focus on the cast. “THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO” made Rooney Mara a star. There is no doubt about it. The actress, who made a memorable appearance in Fincher’s last movie, “THE SOCIAL NETWORK”, gave a star turning performance as the anti-social hacker, Lisbeth Salander. She was quiet, intense, intelligent, tough . . . hell, she did a superb job of re-creating every nuance of the Lisbeth character with a subtlety and intensity that I found very appealing. It is not surprising that she eventually earned both a Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Daniel Craig did not earn any acting award for his portrayal of journalist Mikael Blomkvist. This is not surprising. His character was not as showy as Mara’s. And as a blogger named Brent Lang pointed out, Craig’s character was more or less the “damsel in distress”. He was not exaggerating. But Craig not only gave an engaging and slightly sexy performance as Blomkvist, he also did an excellent job of serving as the movie’s emotional center or anchor.

Christopher Plummer’s peformance as Henrik Vanger resonated with sly humor and deep emotion. Stellan Skarsgård gave one of the most interesting performances in the movie as the missing Harriet’s brother, Martin. I found myself wondering if Skarsgård’s Martin was a trickster character used to keep the audience wondering about him. Both Geraldine James and Joely Richardson appeared as Harriet’s cousins, Cecilia and Anita, respectively. Richardson’s performance was solid and a little understated. But I really enjoyed James’ brief stint as the sharp tongue Cecilia. And Robin Wright was solid, if not that memorable as Blomkvist’s lover and editor, Erika Berger. Yorick van Wageningen’s performance as Lisbeth’s guardian Nils Bjurman struck me as both understated and downright scary. At first glance, his performance did not hint the disturbed sexism that led his character to rape Lisbeth. Come to think of it, I do not recall any hint of Bjurman’s sick and sordid personality in van Wageningen’s portrayal of the character at all . . . even when his character was forcing himself on Lisbeth. It was a very disturbing performance. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Steven Berkoff, Goran Visnjic and Donald Sumpter.

I have at least one complaint about “THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO”. There was a sequence in the movie’s last twenty minutes that featured Lisbeth’s theft of businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström’s assets via hacking. The sequence seemed to drag an otherwise well-paced movie. Yet, at the same time, I glad that Fincher revealed Lisbeth’s theft, instead of vaguely pointing it out, as Niels Arden Oplev did in the 2009 adaptation. I guess I have mixed feelings about this particular sequence.

“THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO” received five Academy Award nominations – one for actress Rooney Mara and four technical nominations. After typing that last sentence, I shook my head in disgust. What in the hell was the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences thinking? That was it? No Best Picture, Best Director or Best Adapted Screenplay nomination? No nomination for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score? Movies like Woody Allen’s dull-ass“MIDNIGHT IN PARIS” and Steven Spielberg’s overrated “WAR HORSE” received Best Picture nominations. But not“THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO”. And Fincher’s movie was one of the best I have ever seen in 2011. This is just damn pitiful.