“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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“NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” (2007) and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007) Reviews

“NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” (2007) and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007)  Reviews

Three years ago, two movies were released in the theaters . . . two movies that could not be anymore different than if they had tried. I am speaking of “NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR”. The first movie, starring Nicholas Cage and Jon Voight, is a sequel to the 2004 Disney film, “NATIONAL TREASURE”. The other is a comedy-drama about a Texas congressman from the 1980s who found himself involved in Afghanistan’s attempts to free itself from a Soviet invasion.

“National Treasure 2: The Book of Secrets”

This sequel to the 2004 movie – “National Treasure” – opens with the Gates family – Benjamin and Patrick (Nicholas Cage and Jon Voight) – learning from a black market dealer named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) that their Civil War ancestor Thomas Gates (Joel Gretsch) may have been the mastermind behind Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Wilkinson’s so-called proof came from assassin John Wilkes Booth’s diary. To prove their ancestor’s innocence and family honor, Ben and Patrick recruit the aid of family friend Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), Ben’s estranged girlfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), Patrick’s ex-wife Emily Appleton (Helen Mirren), FBI Agent Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) and even the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) to help them find the treasure of gold that would vindicate Thomas Gates and the family’s name.

In a nutshell, this sequel turned out to be just as fun and exciting as the first movie. Ben Gates and company follow clues that lead them from Paris to London to Washington D.C. and finally Mount Rushmore in the Dakota Black Hills. The cast were their usual competent selves and Ed Harris turned out to be just as effective as a villain as Sean Bean had been in the first film. My favorite sequences included Ben, Abigail and Riley’s attempt to gain access to one of the rooms at Buckingham Palace, Ben and Abigail’s minor adventures at the White House and Ben’s kidnapping of the President at Mount Vernon.

I did have a few problems with the movie. My biggest gripe turned out to be the treasure itself. I realize that the Templar treasure found in the first film could not be topped. But I must admit that the City of Gold found beneath Mount Rushmore had failed to impress me at all. And why end the movie at Mount Rushmore? Granted there was a war between American settlers and the Dakota Sioux in 1862, but what did that have to do with the Civil War? I would have been happier if the movie’s setting had remained on the East Coast.

Aside from these minor gripes, “National Treasure 2: The Book of Secrets” turned out to be as entertaining as the first film. I would highly recommend it.

“Charlie Wilson’s War”

This historical drama told the story of recently departed Texas congressman Charles Wilson (Tom Hanks)’s efforts to get the United States to aid the Mujahideen (Afghanistan freedom fighters) in their fight against the military invaders from the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Urged on by his staunchly anti-Communist friend and romantic interest, Texas heiress Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), Wilson became deeply involved to help the Afghans throw the Soviets out of their country without the world knowing about U.S. involvement. The film not only revealed Wilson’s growing disdain for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it also gave moviegoers a look into his gregarious social life of women and partying.

Judging from the movie’s Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nomination, one could see that “Charlie Wilson’s War”has become a front-runner for Academy Award nominations. Does it deserve the acclamation? I do not know. Granted, Mike Nichols did a competent job in allowing moviegoers a peek into Washington and international politics, and C.I.A. policies. Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos) were excellent. But if I must be honest, the movie did not give me a charge. I liked it. I really found it entertaining. But I did not love it. When leaving the theater, I had this feeling that something was missing. It could have been the unsatisfying ending, which I found to be rushed. Or perhaps I thought the story could have required a little more depth.

I cannot say that “Charlie Wilson’s War” was great. But I did find it entertaining. And if you are intrigued by a look into American politics during the 1980s, I would highly recommend it.

“HEAT” (1995) Review

Below is my review of ”HEAT”, Michael Mann’s 1995 crime melodrama that starred Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer: 

”HEAT” (1995) Review

For many filmgoers and critics, the 1995 crime drama ”HEAT” is regarded as director Michael Mann’s masterpiece. It is the movie that most fans think of when the director’s name is mentioned. ”TIME” magazine had even placed it on its list of top 100 crime dramas of all time. And the brutal downtown Los Angeles shootout is considered to be one of the best action sequences in movie history.

So . . . how do I feel about ”HEAT”? Like many others, I consider it to be one of the best crime dramas I have ever seen. Honestly. The movie centered around a cat-and-mouse game between a Los Angeles Police detective named Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and a ruthless professional thief named Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). McCauley’s carefully planned heist of an armored car that contained US$1.6 million dollars in bearer bonds owned by a money launderer named Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner) goes slightly wrong when one of his crew – a trigger-happy cowboy named Waingro (Kevin Gage) – kills one of the armored car guards being held at gunpoint by the crew. Realizing they cannot leave behind any witnesses, McCauley’s crew is forced to kill the remaining guards. This multiple homicide, along with the armored car robbery, attracts the attention of Detective Hanna and his squad – members of the L.A.P.D. Robbery/Homicide Unit.

Back in the late 1980s, Michael Mann had written a transcript for a 1989 made-for-television film called ”L.A. TAKEDOWN”about a cat-and-mouse game between a Los Angeles Police detective and a hardened and methodical criminal that affected a bank robbery in downtown Los Angeles. Following his success of ”THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS”, Mann took that transcript and broadened it for a theatrical movie that would become ”HEAT”. Mann’s screenplay featured a multi-layered and complex look into the lives of professional criminals and the police officers that pursued them. Through characters like the introverted thief McCauley and one of his co-horts, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), audiences received a glimpse into the lives of professional criminals that were neither mobsters or amateurish lone wolves. Men like McCauley and Shiherlis were just as organized as the Mob, but they did not come from any particular ethnic group like the La Cosa Nostra. The movie also offered a glimpse into their personal lives and reveal how their pursuit of crime affected their families and other loved ones. ”HEAT”also presented a parallel glimpse into the lives of police officers like Vincent Hanna, who led a special unit of detectives that investigate robberies and homicides. Mann took filmgoers into Hanna’s marriage. There, the director revealed how the detective’s intense dedication to his profession and temper affected said marriage.

As I had earlier stated, ”HEAT” is a complex tale filled with intriguing characters and multiple subplots that served the movie’s main plot. Well . . . some of the subplots accomplished this task. The one plot that dominated the movie (and served as the only plot for Mann’s ”L.A. TAKEDOWN”) was the clash between Hanna and McCauley that culminated in a downtown Los Angeles bank robbery and its aftereffects. Through his script and direction, Mann provided some memorable moments in the film. I found myself impressed by the scene that featured McCauley and his crew being double-crossed at a local drive-in theater by men working for money launderer Van Zant. Another scene that impressed me was the more dramatic quarrel between Chris Shiherlis and his wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd) over his gambling habits. The scene served as a reminder on how the activities of criminals end up affecting their lives on a personal scale. One favorite scene featured an amusing, yet crowd-pleasing moment when Hanna realized that McCauley had become aware of the squad’s presence with his own investigation. But the movie’s tour-de-force remains, of course, the famous shootout in downtown Los Angeles, following a bank robbery committed by McCauley and his crew. I could rave over the excellence and excitement of the scene. But why should I bother? The sequence’s positive reputation amongst critics and filmgoers is a perfect reflection of the scene’s excellence. I can only think of a handful of similar action sequences – two of them from other Mann movies – that are this well shot.

As much as I admire ”HEAT”, it has its flaws. One, the movie has a running time of 165 minutes. Now, this might not be much of a problem on its own. However, it does become something of a problem with a movie filled with what I consider to be unnecessary subplots that dragged the film in certain areas. I could have done without the movie’s romantic subplots. McCauley’s romance with a bookstore clerk/graphics artist named Eady (Amy Bremmerman) bored the hell out of me. Hanna’s marriage to a divorcee named Justine (Diane Verona) annoyed me. Well . . . her character annoyed me. I became weary of her constant complaints about his “dedication” to the job. This particular subplot had its own in the form of Hanna’s suicidal stepdaughter (Natalie Portman), who seemed incapable of dealing with her real father’s absence from her life. In the end, Hanna and McCauley’s personal lives seemed to have NO real impact upon the movie’s main plot and minor impact upon their respective characters. Worse, both subplots nearly dragged the film. Ironically, the two relationships that had a stronger impact upon the movie’s main plot turned out to be Chris and Charlene Shiherlis’s troubled marriage and the marriage between another member of McCauley’s crew named Trejo (Danny Trejo) and his wife, Anna (Begonya Plaza). Chris and Charlene’s marriage and feelings for one another played a role in Chris’ fate following the disastrous bank robbery. And Trejo’s love for his wife led him to reveal McCauley’s robbery plans, while being tortured by Van Zant’s men and Waingro . . . before they could tip off the police. And yet, these two relationships did not receive as much screen time as Hanna and McCauley’s relationships.

Three other subplots failed to grab me. With Trejo and his wife in Van Zant’s clutches, McCauley was forced to recruit a driver for the bank robbery – a paroled convict named Donald Breeden (Dennis Haysbert). Unfortunately, Mann included a subplot that led Breeden to break his parole and accept McCauley’s job offer – a subplot that described the parolee’s difficulties in staying straight. I found the story a bore and a waste of Haysbert’s talent. And I never understood Mann’s decision to include Waingro’s murder of a teenage prostitute. Hanna and his team had never linked the murder to Waingro. Nor did the crime have an impact upon the movie’s plot, except force Hanna to abandon a dinner party with his squad and their wives . . . and give Justine another excuse to complain about his job. One last subplot seemed useless to me. It featured Hanna and McCauley’s only meeting at a local diner near, where each man examined the other and revealed that they would not hesitate to kill the other if the situation demands it. And while I must admit that Pacino and De Niro gave top notch performances, the entire scene struck me as a . . . waste . . . of . . . time. The only thing this entire scene had served was a chance to allow Pacino and De Niro to share one scene together.

I realized that I had written so much about the movie’s plot that I nearly forgotten about the performances. Fortunately, Mann had cast the movie with talented actors and actresses and I cannot fault any one of them. I realize much has been said about Al Pacino’s tendency to engage in theatrical acting. In other words, he can be a ham. He certainly was a ham in”HEAT”. But the thing about Pacino is that he can be subtle or he can be a ham . . . with style. Which is why I am willing to give him a pass on some of his hammier moments. But I cannot deny that Vincent Hanna may be one of his best roles. Whereas Pacino’s Hanna is all fire and theatrics, De Niro’s Neil McCauley is quiet intensity. His McCauley must be one of the most subtle performances he has ever given. I cannot even remember a scene where he had raised his voice, let alone mugged for the camera. There were other performances that also impressed me – Mykelti Williamson as the no-nonsense Sergeant Drucker, one of Hanna’s teammates; Tom Siezemore as McCauley’s most loyal henchman, Michael Cheritto; Jon Voight as Nate, McCauley’s pragmatic fence; and Diane Verona as Hanna’s embittered wife, Justine. Yes I had complained about her character, but I must admit that Verona gave a memorable performance. However, I have to give special kudos to Natalie Portman’s emotional performance as Hanna’s suicidal stepdaughter who is desperate for her real father’s attention; and to Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd, who managed to give complex performances as Chris and Charlene Shiherlis – one of McCauley’s colleagues and his wife. Despite their constant clashes over his gambling habit and her brief foray into adultery with a Las Vegas resident named Alan Marciano (Hank Azaria), Kilmer and Judd made it clear that these two loved each other . . . especially in a quiet and tense scene that featured Charlene giving fugitive Chris a silent warning to stay away, due to the presence of nearby police.

As much as I admire Michael Mann as a director, there is one aspect of his filmmaking that turns me off – namely his cinematic view of Los Angeles. I tend to find this view cold and antiseptic. I have noticed this in both ”HEAT” and his 2004 thriller,”COLLATERAL”. Hell, Mann’s view of Chicago in ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” struck me as ten times more colorful. Considering that Mann is from Chicago, I am not surprised. Mind you, cinematographer Dante Spinotti captured some memorable shots of Los Angeles – including one breathtaking one of the city at night from McCauley’s Hollywood Hills home. But it still came off as slightly chilly. Mann’s view of Los Angeles is probably a reflection of his view of the city . . . which is completely opposite of my own. I did find Pasquale Buba,
William Goldenberg, Dov Hoenig and Tom Rolf’s editing very impressive; especially in the downtown shootout. But there is one technical aspect of ”HEAT” that really knocked my socks off. I am speaking of Elliot Goldenthal’s score. Granted, most of Goldenthal’s score failed to make an impression upon me. However . . . his score for the bank robbery sequence was more than memorable. I enjoyed the way Goldenthal used percussion to underscore the scene’s growing tension that finally exploded into violence when Chris Shirherlis spotted cops and Hanna’s team waiting outside of the bank. For me, the entire sequence featured a perfect blend of music and action.

To repeat myself, ”HEAT” is not a perfect movie, despite its reputation. I consider Mann’s septic view of Los Angeles to be one of the movie’s minor flaws. But its major flaw seemed to be the numerous subplots that had nothing to do with the movie’s main narrative. A flaw that ended up dragging the movie’s pacing in many scenes. But despite these flaws, Mann still managed to create an exciting and complex story about two men – a methodical thief and an intuitive police detective – whose cat-and-mouse game engulfed those in their lives and an entire city. It is this cat-and-mouse game that made ”HEAT” a recent Hollywood classic.

“TRANSFORMERS” (2007) Review

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“TRANSFORMERS” (2007) Review”

Based upon the Japanese cartoon TV series and the line of Hasbro toys, “TRANSFORMERS” is the story about how Earth is caught in the middle of an intergalactic war between two races of robots, the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons, which are able to change into a variety of objects, including cars, trucks, planes and other technological creations. This 2007 film was developed by producers Don Murphy and Tom DeSanto and executive director, Steven Spielberg, had convinced Michael Bay (“PEARL HARBOR”, “BAD BOYS” and “THE ISLAND”) to direct it as his first family film.

I really do not know what to say about “TRANSFORMERS”. It has a pretty good cast with the likes of Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Jon Voight, Anthony Anderson and John Turturro. It also featured the voices of Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime (leader of the the good alien robots) and Hugo Weaving as the voice of the evil Megatron.

I am already into the third paragraph of this post and I have yet to give my review. It sounds as if I am delaying in giving my view of the movie, doesn’t it? Perhaps I am. Like I had stated in the previous paragraph, I do not know what to say about “TRANSFORMERS”. On the surface, it is a pretty exciting, yet funny film. It can boast some first-class action, which happens to be Michael Bay’s forte. And the performances are pretty good. I could say that Shia LaBeouf (Spielberg’s new favorite) was exceptional. Although there were times when I found his performance a little frantic. Rather like a young John Cusak on crack. And I also thought that Tyrese Gibson seemed a little too big to be playing second fiddle to a TV actor like Josh Duhamel. And despite all of the action, special effects and good performances, I had left the theater with this uneasy feeling that “TRANSFORMERS” seemed a little beneath for someone of Bay’s talent or reputation. When one really comes down to it, the movie seemed nothing more than an over-the-top kiddie flick.

But hey, if you are really a fan of THE TRANSFORMERS franchise, I suggest that you check it out. Chances are you will not be disappointed.