The quirky imagination of Wes Anderson and his stylized, symmetrical, painterly approach to filmmaking has always seemed like a natural fit for the world of animation. Stop-motion has a wonderfully tactile and woebegone appreciation that furthermore seems like a natural fit, and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Anderson’s best and most enjoyable films. If it were not for the considerable time it takes to make animated films, I’d be happy if Anderson stayed in this realm. Isle of Dogs is about a future where dogs are blamed for an infectious disease and as a result are banned and quarantined to a garbage island off the coast of Japan. One little boy dares to venture to this island to find his beloved missing dog. From there, he’s escorted by a pack of dogs, led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), across dangerous tracks of the island while avoiding the boy’s adopted family, the mayor of Nagasaki. This is a whimsical, beguiling, detail-rich world to absorb, but it also has splashes of unexpected darkness and violence to jolt (though the dark turns are consistently nullified). It’s a highly entertaining movie although the characters and story are rather thin. The different dogs are kept as stock roles, and the main boy, Atari, is pretty much a cipher for dog owners. However, the film can tap into an elemental emotional response when discussing the relationship between man and dog. If you’re a dog person, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotions when a dog is given a loving owner and sense of family. There is one element of the movie that feels notably off, and that’s the fact that the dogs speak English and the local Japanese characters speak their native tongue but without the aid of subtitles. it doesn’t exactly feel like Anderson is doing this as a source of humor, but I can’t figure out a good alternative reason for it. I’m sure Cranston’s distinctive growl would have sounded just as good speaking Japanese. Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a mid-pack Wes Anderson fantasia of inventive imagination and well worth getting lost within.
Nate’s Grade: B
National Treasure: Book of Secrets is like a big dumb puppy that just wants love. It does a trick and thinks it deserves some form of recognition, and me with my cold heart just wants to shrug and move on with my day. How can I be so unmoved when there’s even a cartoon before the movie? For any prospective moviegoers, if you enjoyed the 2004 National Treasure, where I remind all that the U.S. Declaration of Independence had a secret treasure map on its other side, then chances are good you’ll enjoy Book of Secrets. That’s because they’re pretty much the same movie.
Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his father (Jon Voight) are basking in their newfound respect from proving that their crackpot treasure schemes were in fact real. Their respectability is turned upside down, however, when Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris, with a dollop of a Southern drawl) has evidence that great-great-grandaddy Gates was responsible for planning President Lincoln’s assassination. He has a piece of John Wilkes Booth’s diary and a list of conspirators is jotted down, with great-great granddaddy Gates listed right there. The diary is authenticated and the Gates are devastated but ultimately unconvinced. They know their Civil War era ancestor would never betray his country and was unknowingly decoding a secret that could lead the Confederacy to an ancient golden temple, something that could help turn the tide of the war. This ancestor ripped pages out of the diary and threw them in a fire to protect the welfare of his country and was then shot by a secret Confederate soldier. In order to clear his ancestor’s good name, Ben Gates will have to find this hidden treasure, which is precisely what Mitch has wanted from the start.
Gates re-teams with his pals from their first successful adventure, computer whiz Riley (Justin Bartha) and Abigail (Diane Kruger), who has thrown Gates out of their home due to his single-minded focus. Dating a treasure hunter is a certain path to a rocky relationship, ladies. Riley, who even wrote a book about his treasure exploits but still can’t get recognized, is game but Abigail has to be tricked into help. The group finally figures out that the only way to verify the temple’s hidden location is by getting their eyes on the mysterious President’s Book of Secrets, which only presidents can read. This means that Ben has no choice but to get the president (Bruce Greenwood) alone and beg to see a book not meant for outside eyes.
Book of Secrets is a little less dopey than the first preposterous National Treasure adventure, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t chock full of stupidity. According to these movies, apparently damn near everything in this country is built over an Indian burial ground or a giant cavern of treasure. I advise all readers to try digging in their backyards because it appears that the odds are in their favor (also: beware of your real estate company moving the tombstones but not the bodies). The clues are a little less mind-boggling, so instead of a single brick that’s been undisturbed for 200 years we get matching furniture for the Queen of England and the President of the United States. One doozey of stupidity is that one clue requires people to douse a large rock formation with water in hopes that they hit exactly the right spot and have an invisible eagle make its appearance. The plot is still structured on the clue-leads-to-other-clue template, which can be exhausting after a while because there’s never any indication of progress until the end arrives.
The subplot about kidnapping the president is ridiculous in the fact that, while already being dumb, it adds needless conflict. When Gates “”kidnaps” Mr. President he does so through a secret tunnel under George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate. The passage closes behind them and cuts off the frantic Secret Servicemen. It is here where Gates makes his plea for the titular Book of Secrets, which the president confirms but cannot confirm publicly (well, it is a secret book of secrets). Instead of sensibly saying to his men, “Sorry guys, you know how old these places are, we got trapped, but Mr. Gates here helped get me out,” the movie tries to claim that the next course of action is that Gates will be on the run for kidnapping the leader of the free world. Huh? What makes this sequence stand out is how easily explainable it could all pass, and yet Book of Secrets figures the movie is better served by a contrived complication to add more outside pressure on Gates and his treasure hunting crew.
Of course all of the silliness and off-the-wall shenanigans would be acceptable if the film delivered some exciting action sequences that pinned you to your chair, but just like the first National Treasure, this movie is pretty much devoid of a well-thought out action sequence. Returning director Jon Turtletaub has no real visual flair and lets the material simply lay there on screen without much effort to jazz it up. Many action sequences are brief and never really flirt with complications. Usually, the script will propose a simple sequence of events like, say, “Good Guys on Run from Bad Guys” and then Turtletaub will show us exactly that, no better no worse. There’s nary a scene that actually utilizes its globetrotting destination to its advantage; most of the action is not geographic based, which means that it could happen anywhere because it doesn’t take advantage of the specifics of exotic locales. That is inexcusable to me, a big fan of good action sequences. A lengthy trip to an underground golden temple tries the patience as it rambles on and unabashedly apes the Indiana Jones series. Book of Secrets has a halfway decent car chase through the streets of London and that ends up being the highlight of the film. The trouble is that there’s more than an hour left at that point.
Book of Secrets is a slightly better film than the original. It jumps around in time through the lineage of the Gates clan and gives a better sense of the personal stakes for Ben and his father. Having their long-dead heroic family members linked to a dastardly assassination is good motivation for action, even if that action is ultimately finding an underground temple of gold (how A+B = C I will never know). The production design is skillful and the various European locations bring some sense of grander excitement that, sadly, will never be fully capitalized upon. The characters are still pretty shallow and one-note, but it seems like it’s less annoying this time because there’s less setup on who these characters are, which is, in short, shallow and one-note.
Cage is on autopilot and plays up his goofy mannerisms and William Shatner-esque line readings. This is a paycheck job for Cage and nothing more. Just because the first flick made tons of money is a lark to him and not an indication that he should try something different. He’s giving the people what they seemingly want, which is a wacky Nicolas Cage hamming it up with his patented version of kooky acting. Kruger is the exact copy of her character from the previous National Treasure, meaning she’s the bickering blonde counterweight to the conspiracy theorists on the journey. I suppose she plays a damsel in distress adequately. Voight gets more screen time this go-around thanks to a plump subplot involving the team seeking out the assistance of his ex-wife, played by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren. Yes, that Helen Mirren. Harris is given a do-nothing part as the villain and then the movie can’t even follow through on that. Everyone seems to have fun with all the nuttiness and goofy stunts, so I can’t fault them too much for faking it in a big Hollywood blockbuster.
I understand the appeal of these movies, which have found a sizeable audience willing to lap up a Cliff Notes of History along with their popcorn thrills. I imagine the fans of the original will show up in droves and make sure that National Treasure 3: The Mystery of Franklin’s Syphilis is fast-tracked for a future holiday release. I don’t mean to be a killjoy (my mother really enjoys these films) but I cannot get behind the National Treasure movement when the movies are riddled with rampant stupidity, contrived situations, convoluted conspiracies, one-note characters, and inept action sequences that never amount to much of anything beyond teetering homage to better adventure films. Book of Secrets is essentially the exact same movie reheated to take the chill off. Replace Sean Bean for Ed Harris as rival treasure hunter, add another female character, and there you have it, a mostly undisturbed formula that proved profitable in 2004.
Nate’s Grade: C