“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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“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (2012) Review

 

“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (2012) Review

After seven years, Christopher Nolan’s three-movie saga about the D.C. Comics character, Batman, finally came to an end. The saga that began with 2005’s “BATMAN BEGINS”, ended with this year’s “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”.

The new movie, set seven years after 2008’s “THE DARK KNIGHT”, began with the aerial kidnapping of a nuclear scientist by an escaped terrorist named Bane. The scene shifted to Gotham City, where a fund-raiser was being held at Wayne Manor. The only person missing was millionaire Bruce Wayne, who had given up his vigilante activities as Batman after claiming he had murdered former District Attorney Harvey Dent. During the fundraiser, Bruce caught a maid breaking into his private safe. She turned out to be a resourceful cat burglar named Selina Kyle. Aside from a necklace that once belonged to Bruce’s late mother, Selina did not steal any other object from the safe.

Curious over Selina’s actions, Bruce resumed his Batman alter ego and tracked down Selina. He discovered that she had been hired by a rival corporate CEO named John Daggett to lift and steal his fingerprints. Bruce also learned that Daggett had hired the terrorist Bane to attack Gotham’s stock exchange and bankrupt Wayne Enterprises. And along with Police Commissioner James Gordon and Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox, Bruce also discovered that Bane was a former member of the League of Shadows and planned to continue Henri Ducard’s (aka Ra’s al Ghul) goal of Gotham City’s destruction. Bruce asked fellow millionaire Miranda Tate to take control of Wayne Enterprises to ensure that Daggett and Bane will not gain control of their clean energy project, a device designed to harness fusion power.

Re-reading the above made me realize that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan had created a very complicated plot. For me, the plot became even more complicated two-thirds into the movie. “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” obviously exists under the shadow of its two predecessors – “BATMAN BEGINS” and “THE DARK KNIGHT”. I would say that this especially seemed to be the case for the 2005 movie. Batman and James Gordon’s decision to lie about the circumstances behind Harvey Dent’s death in the second movie had a minor impact upon this third movie. But Bruce’s relationship and later conflict with Ra’s al Ghul seemed to be the driving force behind his conflict with Bane in this third film.

I had heard rumors that Christopher Nolan was initially reluctant to make a third BATMAN movie. Personally, I found that rumor a bit hard to believe, considering how “THE DARK KNIGHT” ended with Batman accepting the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes and death. But there were certain aspects of the script he wrote with his brother Jonathan that made me wonder if he had truly been reluctant. There were certain aspects of “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” that I found troubling.

It seemed a pity that the second movie ended with Batman and Jim Gordon’s decision to lie about the circumstances behind Dent’s death. I found their decision unnecessary back in 2008 and I still do. The impact behind their lie proved to be hollow. It merely kept Batman off Gotham City’s streets and led Mayor Anthony Garcia and the city to pass a strong anti-criminal law that proved to be hollow following Bane’s arrival in Gotham City. I also found Bane’s mid-air kidnapping of a nuclear scientist and escape from a U.S. marshal (portrayed by Aidan Gillen) rather somewhat idiotic. I understood that Bane needed that scientist to weaponize the Wayne Enterprise device.  But I never understood why that U.S. marshal failed to take the trouble to identify the hooded prisoner (Bane) before boarding the plane.  In the end, the movie’s opening sequence struck struck me as unnecessarily showy. Was this the Nolan brothers’ way of conveying Bane’s role as a badass to the audience? If so, I was too busy trying to comprehend the villain’s dialogue to care. I understood why Batman had not been seen in Gotham for so long. But what was the reason behind Bruce Wayne’s disappearance from the public eye?  His physical state was not really that severe.  Rachel Dawes’ death? Rachel’s death did not stop him from going after the Joker and Harvey Dent in the last movie’s half hour. Was it an injured leg? How did he injured it? And why did Gotham’s citizens failed to put two-and-two together, when both Bruce and Batman finally appeared in the public eye a day or two apart after many years? The only person who managed to discover Bruce’s alter ego – namely Officer John Blake – did so through a contrived reason.

For me, the movie’s real misstep proved to be Bane’s three-month control over Gotham City. As a former member of Henri Ducard’s League of Shadows, he planned to achieve his former leader’s goal of destroying Gotham City. And he planned to use Wayne Enterprise’s energy device to achieve this. One – why not simply build or snatch his own nuclear device? Why go through so much trouble to get his hands on the energy device? Why did Wayne Enterprises create a device that not only saved energy, but could be used as a bomb, as well? And why did it take three months before the device could become an effective bomb? The Nolans’ script could have frustrated Bane’s attempts to acquire the bomb during that three-month period . . . or anything to spare the audiences of that second-rate version of the French Resistance. The latter scenario seemed so riddled with bad writing that it would take another article to discuss it. And what was the point of the presence of Juno Temple’s character Jen? What was she there for, other than being Selina’s useless and cloying girlfriend? And Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox was last seen declaring his intentions to leave the corporation for good, following Batman’s misuse of cell phones in “THE DARK KNIGHT”. In this movie, he is back, working for Wayne Enterprises. What made him change his mind?

But not all was lost. I found Bruce’s introduction to Selina Kyle very entertaining and sexy. Even better, the incident served as Batman’s re-introduction to Gotham City and allowed him to discover Bane’s plans regarding Wayne Enterprises and the energy device. One of the more interesting consequences of “THE DARK KNIGHT” proved to be Rachel Dawes’ last letter to Bruce. Its revelation by Alfred Pennyworth after seven years led to an emotional quarrel between the millionaire and the manservant and their estrangement. At first, I had balked at the idea of Bane carrying out Ra’s al Ghul’s original goal to destroy Gotham. After all, why would he continue the plans of the very person who had him kicked out of the League of Shadows? But a surprising plot twist made Bane’s plan plausible . . . even when I continue to have problems with his three-month occupation of Gotham.

Many critics had lamented the lack of Heath Ledger’s Joker in the movie. As much as I had appreciated and enjoyed Ledger’s performance in the 2008 movie, I did not need or wanted him in “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”. Tom Hardy’s performance as the terrorist Bane was good enough for me. Mind you, I found it difficult to understand some of his dialogue. And when I did, he sounded like the now aging Sean Connery. But I cannot deny that Bane made one scary villain, thanks to Hardy’s performance and intimidating presence. Before I saw the movie, I never understood the need for Marion Cotillard’s presence in the film. I thought her character, Miranda Tate, would merely be a bland love interest for Bruce. Not only did Cotillard ended up providing a subtle and intelligent performance, her Miranda Tate proved to be important to the story as the co-investor in the energy device and for the plot twist in the end.

“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” provided some solid performances from other members of the cast. Matthew Modine shined as the ambitious and arrogant Assistant Police Commissioner Peter Foley, who proved to be capable of character development. Another solid performance came from Brett Cullen, who portrayed a lustful congressman that had the bad luck to cross paths with Selina Kyle. Both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman continued their excellent performances as Bruce Wayne’s “heart”and “mind”, manservant Alfred Pennyworth and Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox.

In the end, the movie was fortunate to benefit from four outstanding performances. One came from Gary Oldman’s excellent portrayal of the now weary, yet determined police commissioner, James Gordon. His guilt over the Harvey Dent lie and discovery of Batman’s true identity provided Oldman with some of his best moments in the trilogy. Another came from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was superb as Gotham City beat cop John Blake. The actor did a wonderful job of balancing Officer Blake’s intelligence, passion for justice and disgust toward the bureaucracy.

When I learned that Anne Hathaway would end up being the fifth actress to portray Selina Kyle aka Catwoman, I must admit that I had my doubts. Then I remembered that Hathaway was an Oscar nominee, who has also done action before. Watching her sexy, yet complicated performance as the complex cat burglar removed all of my doubts. She was superb and her sizzling screen chemistry with star Christian Bale made me wish Selina had been Bruce’s love interest throughout the movie. Speaking of Bruce Wayne, Bale returned to portray the Caped Crusader for the third and final time. I must admit that I found his performance more subtle and complex than his performances in the previous two movies. Bale did an excellent job in re-creating a slightly aging Bruce Wayne/Batman, who found himself faced with a more formidable opponent.

I was a little disappointed to see that “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” lacked the Chicago exteriors of the 2008 movie. In the end, Gotham City resembled a collection of East Coast and British cities. But I cannot deny that I found Wally Pfister’s photography very eye catching. And Hans Zimmer’s entertaining score brought back memories of his earlier work in both the 2005 and 2008 movies.

I have a good deal of complaints about “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”. It is probably my least favorite entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. For me, the movie’s main problem centered around the script written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. But despite its flaws, the movie still managed to be both entertaining and intriguing. It also has an excellent cast led by the always superb Christian Bale. It was not perfect, but “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” did entertain me.