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Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

It took nine movies but we can now put the Fast and Furious franchise to rest, and that’s because we now have Hobbs & Shaw, the spinoff that took the best parts of the franchise and ran away. What started as a film about underground street racing in 2001 has morphed into an over-the-top superhero spectacle where their superhuman power is being really good with cars, as well as not adhering to any laws of physics. Now they’ve cordoned off The Rock and Jason Statham, attached the director of Atomic Blonde and give me Idris Elba as the villain, who openly proclaims himself to be “black Superman.” Why do we ever need to go back to Vin Diesel and his pit crew ever again? Hobbs & Shaw is a big blast of action overkill fun. It’s not without its flaws and limitations but it’s exactly what it set out to be.

Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is trying to enjoy some rest and relaxation with his daughter but the world isn’t going to be save itself. He’s recruited to team up with the wily Deckard Shaw (Statham) to recover a missing sample of a super virus that can be programmed to kill anyone on the planet. The key is finding MIA MI6 agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), accused of killing her team and absconding with the virus. She also happens to be Shaw’s estranged sister. The real villain is a super mercenary Brixton (Elba) who is engineered to be a superior killing machine. His mysterious employer wants to recruit Hobbs and Shaw to the cause, but in the event of their refusal, death is always an option. The Shaw family reunion makes the majority of the movie a three-person chase film that ultimately pushes Hobbs to go back home to the Samoan family he left behind decades ago and they haven’t forgotten their prodigal son.

Once again, the main draw of a Fast and Furious movie are the eye-popping action set pieces, and Hobbs & Shaw has its fair share of excitement and satisfaction. There are a couple standouts, notably a climactic helicopter face-off involving a chain of racing vehicles and the concept of lift, but really none of the action will displace the top moments from this increasingly insane franchise. Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) doesn’t have any signature moments that stun like that extended, fatigued fight sequence in Atomic Blonde, but he definitely taps into the moment-to-moment fun and absurdity. A chase down the side of a building is not remotely realistic, but with Leitch there’s an added sense of comedy by making it another contest between Hobbs and Shaw. That macho posturing can liven up an already enjoyable scene and give it a personal edge that ties into the charisma of the stars. So even when the action is cooking at a lower level, focusing on that charisma elevates the sequence. The action pumps at a constant pace with plenty of explosions, tumbles, and powerful fists. The movie follows the latter Fast and Furious mold by not even trying to resemble reality. When Brixton’s super hands-free motorcycle acts more like a living Transformer, it doesn’t matter because the movie isn’t building a reality where something like that would seem like an exaggeration. I laughed more at moments like that and smiled rather than scoffing at its disconnect from crafting some kind of baseline sense of reality.

I will say the action beats could be shaved down, especially as the movie teeters to 135 minutes long. It’s not exactly the kind of action cinema like Mission: Impossible where the set pieces are so brilliantly constructed with organic complications. These aren’t quite at the level of spectacle or immersion of a Fury Road or even the Justin Lin-era of Furious land. There are few sequences that couldn’t be pared down because often the beats are the same beats just with more of them. I wished there had been a greater variety of action sequences or at least an interesting series of complications, the lifeblood of great action movies. There are a few standout moments with larger-than-life imagery but mostly the action has a very same-y quality that can feel repetitive. That’s where the comedic perspectives can help. A hallway fight is enjoyable but lacks impressive fight choreography, but what saves the scene is the comedic exasperation at the end for Shaw and again tying it to the ongoing competition with Hobbs.

Beyond the explosive action, the real draw is the cast and they are overloaded with charisma. There’s a reason somebody at Universal decided to slice off these two characters because they are clearly the only characters many people ever cared about, because both actors have an innate charm that pops off the screen. Watching the two of them butt heads and trade insults and glares is an ongoing pleasure. It reminds one how big personalities can effortlessly carry big Hollywood action movies when you have the right stars together. They do form their own sort of combative bond and understanding by the end, but one wonders if their banter will get old if it doesn’t evolve over the inevitably commissioned assembly of sequels. The Rock and Statham get some big laughs and hearty entertainment squaring off and working together for even bigger destructive power.

Kirby (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) is a terrific addition as a strong-willed, kickass heroine first and a potential love interest for Hobbs second, which amusingly upsets Shaw. Kirby has an above-it-all air to her that makes her seem like a natural match as a sister to Statham. Elba (Molly’s Game) is settling into a groove as a go-to heavy (Star Trek Beyond, The Jungle Book) and even while threatening a global pandemic he can’t help but be smooth and charming. This is the best cast ever assembled for a Fast and Furious movie, and you throw in unexpected comedy cameos, Helen Mirren, and an extended Samoan family, and the movie begins to stake out its own claims on a world separate from Diesel’s boring “family.”

Hobbs & Shaw is a combination of 80s action movie attitude, 90s bombast, and 2010s outrageous set pieces, lead by two of the more charming men Hollywood has at its punching-kicking disposal. That’s actually a pretty good word, “disposal,” because the movie is designed as nothing more than a breezy two hours at the movies with your biggest tub of popcorn. Of course the studio has larger plans and envisions it as a way to keep the Fast and Furious franchise alive and diversified. Hobbs & Shaw has little more on its mind than giving its audience a good time, and it easily achieves that aim. I may not feel the need to watch Fast and Furious movies again like I do other action franchises that provide more emotional investment, practical stuntwork, and structural brilliance, but that doesn’t mean I won’t happily consume the next entry. As long as The Rock and Statham are in place and feeling good, so too will the eventual audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

I’ve written before that all I demand from the ever-ascendant and popular Fast and Furious franchise are its eye-popping action set pieces that teeter into madcap lunacy and impressive stunt work. A fiery meteor could crush all the characters, short of The Rock, and I wouldn’t shed a tear. Despite the super serious plaudits about the importance of family and loyalty and blah blah blah, I’m only here for the action spectacle that obliterates the laws of physics. I’ve said before there’s a fine line between stupid action and stupidly awesome action, and the Fast and Furious franchise has planted its flag like few others. Nobody today goes to the level of action spectacle that the Fast and Furious films achieve, bringing to life exciting action set pieces that feel fully plucked from the imagination of an exuberant child, and I don’t mean that at all disparagingly. These movies deliver like few others nowadays. We’re a long way from undercover cops and underground street racing. Vin Diesel and his team are essentially superheroes and their power involves doing amazing things with cars. I’m not a gearhead, I don’t care a lick about automobiles, but I’ve come to eagerly anticipate this franchise. It delivers ridiculous action on a ridiculous scale like few others. It’s earned my confidence. The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film, still delivers the high-octane goods even if it can’t quite keep up with the best of the franchise’s entries.

Dom (Diesel) has been preaching the virtues of family for years but now he’s turning his back on them. The notorious cyber terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron) extorts Dom into helping her get her hands on nuclear codes. Dom’s crew (The Rock, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Nathalie Emmanuel) is wondering whether the man they know is still there. Government agent M. Nobody (Kurt Russell) reassembles the team to track down Dom, and they’re working with some unexpected help. Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) has been released from maximum-security prison to thwart Cipher.

This is a franchise that soared to new heights of commercial success after it left behind its inhibitions of the imagination. It’s a franchise that lives or dies depending upon its giddy action set pieces. As I wrote about Furious 7: “The set pieces of the last few films have been stunners, and at its height, the franchise can make you feel giddy like a child watching the unreal unfold with such delight. There’s a tremendous and infectious high watching a well-executed action scene on such a large scale. With every movie our expectations are hungrier, and the franchise has found a way to satiate our action movie demands.” Fortunately for the eighth film, there are two standout action set pieces that are some of the stronger ones in the history of the franchise. The first is a car chase through New York (though filmed primarily in Cleveland) that builds and changes as it continues, an essential element for any great action sequence to stretch forward. At one point Cipher takes control of an armada of hackable, self-driving cars and pilots them as a collective weapon of mass destruction. They resemble a herd of runaway bulls. The destructive fleet leads to some impressive sights such as a bevy of cars plummeting from a parking garage. It’s a strong sequence that also finds room for the other characters to try and take down Dom, and it allows Dom the ability to outsmart them, adding the personal element. The other standout is the entire third act set around the Arctic Circle in Russia that climaxes with the dizzying heights of a nuclear sub chase and The Rock manually redirecting a speeding torpedo. There are multiple points of action and mini-goals that lead logically to the next, allowing escalation to mount. It’s dangerously over-the-top even for this franchise and it’s generally awesome and I loved it.

Eight movies in and Fast and Furious is really becoming an expansive ensemble series. The core team has been picking up players here and there with each additional movie, building its diverse definition of a diverse family. This is getting to be a crowded film and there’s just not enough room to go around for everyone to contribute meaningfully, which means it’s more likely from here on out, unless there is some judicial pruning, that characters stay religiously archetypal. Ludacris is the tech guru, but isn’t Emmanuel now also the tech guru, or does she only specialize in the tech subgroup of hacking? Why do I need Scott Eastwood (The Longest Ride) to join the gang as the awkward rookie trying to look cool? Isn’t that a milder version of what Tyrese Gibson offers as the comic relief bravado? Admittedly, I only started really paying attention to this franchise once it added The Rock, but I’m still unsure what Rodriguez brings to the dynamic beside history and romance. This general sense of the characters settling into their expected roles is exemplified in the in-car banter and one-liners. It appears often that they’re just talking to themselves for these lines. I could do with far less Tyrese reaction shots and Rodriguez one-liners. Theron is also generally wasted as the new villain du jour. She’s got the icy glare down and looks to be having fun, but she’s not given anything interesting to do. Without going into greater spoilers, I will say that Dom’s heel turn is wrapped up by the end of its 135-minute running time. No need to turn it into a multi-film arc.

Paul Walker’s character is understandably absent and I’d hate for them to bring him back after the very sweet and surprisingly poignant sendoff at the end of Furious 7, but he does still exist in this universe. I can agree with characters not wanting to get him involved in their dangerous missions across the globe, but at the end when they’re all dining as one big family, wouldn’t they also invite Dom’s sister, brother-in-law, and their children too? It gets into the Avengers territory where you start wondering why the Avengers haven’t assembled for the world-destroying threats from their respective solo film adventures.

The best post-Rock addition to the franchise has easily been Statham (Spy) and he proves it with his limited but highly entertaining time on screen. His appearances were a fun disruption in the previous film and he served as the most formidable villain. Reintegrating him onto the team was a smart move because he adds charisma, unpredictability, and a new dynamic that also seeds conflict. It was also smart because more Statham means including hand-to-hand combat action sequences that can involve a higher degree of stunt choreography, even if the former Transporter is starting to show his age. His scenes with The Rock were a natural highlight. However, adding Deckard onto the team to tackle a bigger baddie presents some weird questions. By the film’s end, everyone seems rather chummy with the man who straight up murdered their friend Han (Sung Kang). Sorry dude but it seems like everyone is rather relaxed with your murderer and big government having unlimited and regulation-free surveillance powers. My advice to future Fast and Furious installments, and there will be various, is to try and include as much Statham as possible (it’s essentially a repeat of The Rock Rule).

Where the movie has rougher terrain is in the area of drama and comedy. Look, nobody is going to confuse the Fast and the Furious films as great works of human drama. Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) takes over for James Wan (The Conjuring) who took over for Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond), and the discrepancy is noticeable. While having two excellent set pieces that place highly along the big board of the franchise, they’re not as well shot. Gray’s command of visuals is more than adequate but lacks the sizzle and vision of his predecessors. Wan was able to adopt the house style of the franchise and deliver a satisfying though lesser experience (Lin is king). Gray has a harder time with the material. The CGI approaches cartoon levels at points and Gray doesn’t better maintain tone. He doesn’t know when to pull back, which is unusually exemplified in the comedy asides. Everything that gets a laugh will be repeated until it becomes somewhat annoying, in particular a scene with Statham and a baby. It begins fun and cheeky, and Statham even uses the baby carriage as part of the fight choreography, but then it overstays its welcome like the other comedy bits. The dramatic moments are also far too overwrought, even for this franchise. It can be a bit much.

This is a franchise that revels in the ridiculous, that embraces being a big dumb action movie in the best way, delivering imaginative and often eye-popping action that deserves the full big screen treatment. Fate of the Furious falls somewhere in the middle of the franchise from a quality standpoint. It’s not as good as seven, which wasn’t as good as six, which wasn’t as good as five, but it’s still good enough. It’s definitely lesser and the new director doesn’t have the same natural feel for the preposterous as previous directors, and even after eight films I’m still mostly indifferent about the far majority of the characters on screen. As I’ve written before, though, thankfully the movie has the good sense to know what the audience is paying to see. It’s here for the fast cars, eye-popping stunts, and gratuitously framed camera angles highlighting women’s derrieres (I think there’s a contractual law that a close-up of booty shorts must make a grand entrance in the opening minutes of every film). Fate of the Furious is just enough of what I want from the franchise, though it’s getting harder to keep up with every new movie. Furious 9 and 10 are already in the works, and it’s only a matter of time before we get Fast and Furious in Space. It’s getting further and further removed from a sense of reality but as long as it keeps up with incrementally raised expectations and employs enough charming actors to compensate for Diesel’s enormous lack of charisma, then they’ll keep fans like me happy in the short run.

Nate’s Grade: B

Collateral Beauty (2016)/ Manchester by the Sea (2016)

collateral-beauty_posterTrauma and grief are common colors in the palette of screenwriting. Wounded men and women overcoming loss and sorrow allow us all an opportunity to learn and heal through someone else’s personal pain and suffering. It’s the movie theater as therapist’s office with art serving as catalyzing event to help those in need. When 2006’s United 93 was released many critics thought it was too soon for a dramatic recreation of the events of 9/11. First, there’s never a right estimation for how long the world of art should wait to respond to shared tragedy, but I argued that United 93 could function as a facilitator for healing for select moviegoers. It helps to be able to live vicariously through fictional characters on screen, and it makes us smile when they overcome those obstacles and give hope to the rest of us. Two new movies have taken very different paths to explore responses to trauma onscreen. Collateral Beauty is a star-studded affair built from a screenplay that sold for an estimated three million dollars. Manchester by the Sea premiered at the Sundance film Festival and blew away audiences with its understated and unsentimental portrait of loss. One of these movies goes big and miscalculates badly and the other delivers one of the better, more emotionally involving films of the year. I think once you hear the premises it’ll be clear which is which.

In Collateral Beauty, Howard (Will Smith) is an advertising guru still reeling two years later from the unexpected death of his six-year-old daughter. He’s become a hermit who furiously rides his bicycle into traffic to tempt fate. He shuns his old friends and minority partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena). He also writes angry letters to the concepts of Death, Time, and Love to note his general displeasure. Major accounts are lost because of Howard’s seclusion and now it looks like the whole company might go under unless they accept a stock buyout. Howard refuses to sign off on the purchase, which forces his trio of friends to hire struggling actors to play “Death” (Helen Mirren), “Time” (Jacob Latimore), and “Love” (Keria Knightley). These three personified concepts will converse with Howard to provide an unorthodox therapeutic breakthrough. The actors will be paid handsomely and they relish the challenge. If that doesn’t work, they will record his public feuds with the actors, digitally erase the actors, and make it seem like he’s gone crazy with grief. Along the way, Howard gets closer and closer to talking about his loss in a support group run by the saintly Madeleine (Naomie Harris), a woman also suffering the loss of her child. If the universe is all about making connections, Howard is on a collision course with the fates.

Few films have dropped in estimation so precipitously in my mind as Collateral Beauty. To its credit, while you’re watching the movie you don’t notice as many of the misguided manipulations from prolific screenwriter Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, Just Go with It). You’re aware of their presence but they don’t remove you from the movie, that is, until you extend further thought on the full implications. Allow me to simply vocalize in print the Christmas Carol-esque premise of this “feel good” holiday movie.t-collateral-beauty

“A group of wealthy advertising executives scheme to get their grieving mentor and friend declared mentally incompetent so they can sell their company. They hire duplicitous actors to pose as metaphysical concepts, engage with Howard in public, and then they will digitally erase the presence of the actors, making it look like Howard fits the lazy man’s definition of crazy. And these people are the heroes.”

The characters give plenty of rationalizations for why they’re forced to set up their supposed friend, mostly about saving the company and saving jobs. Simon especially needs the money and medical insurance with where he’s headed. Howard is spiraling and they worry that he will take down everyone with him. That’s fine, but why do they resort to the outlandish and ethically dubious practices that they do? The hiring of actors seems like a helpful therapeutic exercise on the surface, unless you stop and think about a grieving man badgered by an antagonistic universe. Howard is already exemplifying mentally unsound behavior so I don’t know why the public spats are required. The digital erasure constitutes explicit fraud and it feels so much grosser. It’s an expensive step to provide visual evidence of a man having a nervous breakdown. They could have simply recorded Howard in his office for a week while he builds elaborate domino structures just to watch them topple (symbolism!). Even the characters call-out one another for this gaslighting trick. On another note, won’t Howard eventually find out? What if some enterprising digital effects editor has a moral crisis and confesses? This is the equivalent of false documents forged to push the rich old lady into the booby hatch so her scheming relatives could abscond with her vast fortune. It’s even more egregious when Collateral Beauty presents these characters as the heroes. Yes they have different degrees of guilt but that is tamped down by their moral relativism justifications. It makes it a little harder to swallow all that outpouring of cloying sentiment later. These murky and misguided manipulations will symbolize much that is wrong with the movie.

I hope the audience is prepared for Smith to be sidelined for much of the movie because Howard is more a supporting character in someone else’s story. Howard is really more a catalyst than a fully developed character. He grieves, he suffers, but his point is how his grief and suffering affect others, which is a strange tact to take. His journey is quite similar to Casey Affleck’s in Manchester by the Sea. He must come to terms with loss, accepting the cruelty of that reality in order to move forward and let others in. Moving on doesn’t mean we forget, especially when that trauma is a loved one’s loss, and Howard holds onto that pain for so long as a means to still feel his daughter’s presence. It’s an acceptable character conceit but it flounders in the movie because EVERYONE simply talks at Howard. Smith’s asked to be teary-eyed and mute for most of the picture. Any significant breakthroughs, developments, or even passing of information occurs from others applying meaning to this sad silent man who must not remain sad.

pegasus_large_t_1581_107191149As a result, the movie pumps up the supporting characters and pairs them with one of the actors. “Death” relates with Simon for him to accept his declining health and to allow his family to know. “Time” relates with Claire over her worry that she’s sacrificed starting a family by prioritizing her career (this is another film world where nobody puts serious consideration into adoption). I need to stop and question this particular storyline. Doesn’t it feel a bit tacky and outdated? It’s also, by far, the storyline with the least attention; we literally see Claire glance at a sperm donor brochure and website for a scant few seconds and that’s it. Then there’s “Love” who relates with Whit to try and get him to repair his relationship with his rightfully angry young daughter after Whit cheated and broke up his marriage. “Love” literally just goads Whit to actually try being a parent and accept some responsibility for his failings. That’s it, and she has to use the incentive of a date to convince him to try and be a better father (Whit sloppily hitting on “Love” definitely lays a plausible peak into why exactly he’s divorced). “Death” and Simon play out the best mostly because Mirren is impishly amusing, and also benefits from naturally being Helen Mirren, and Pena’s character is given the most sincerity. He has the most at stake personally and setting things right for his family is taking a toll. Loeb has given each actor something to do, and the talents of the actors are enough that I was distracted from the overall machinations at least until the very end.

For most of its relatively brief running time, Collateral Beauty has kept to its own form of internal logic and avoided blatantly manipulative calculations for heightened drama. Sure Pena’s first instance of movie cough is an obvious telegraph to more astute members of the audience, but it makes some sense since this is less our real world and more the well-sculpted Movie World. Then the final ten minutes play out and the movie doesn’t just skid, it steers into this skid of counterfeit sentiment. I’ll refrain from spoiling both of the major reveals but they both serve to make you rethink everything. It’s not one of those eye-opening twists but more something my pal Eric and I were dreading in our seats, mumbling to ourselves, “Please please don’t.” These final two reveals are completely unnecessary. They disrupt the tenuous reality of the movie and the balance of tones becomes a mess. It also divulges how overly constructed the screenplay really was, designed to lead an audience to these chosen end points that don’t engender catharsis. It’s about pointing out how clever the screenplay was rather than the emotional journey, a movie in service of its twists. Neither twist serves strong narrative purpose other than to be out-of-the-blue surprises.

collateral-beauty-trailerLet’s get to that ungainly and clunky title. It’s a nonsense pairing of words that’s meant to sound profound but is really just confusing and remains so even though the characters repeat this clumsy phrase like eight times. There’s a conversation where it appears in every sentence, as if repetition alone can make this phrase/idea successfully stick. It doesn’t. I think I understand what it means, or at least what Loeb was going for, but I’m not sure. Madeleine talks about making sure to see all the collateral beauty in the universe, but is this merely a more obtuse way of restating Wes Bentley’s floating plastic bag declaration in American Beauty? Is it a more pretentious way of saying to stop and smell the roses? Here’s where I thought it was going with its meaning: “collateral” in this sense means accompanying and instead of accompanying damages we’re focused on the accompanying beauty, therefore a contemplation of the possible unintended helpful ramifications. This was going to make sense for Madeline since she uses her personal tragic experience to reach out and help others heal through their own tragedies. It’s the long ripples of human kindness reaching out far beyond our initial actions. And maybe, juts maybe, Howard and Madeleine would become romantically linked through coping with their similar heartache and find one another. However, the movie’s real ending torpedoes this interpretation. What we’re left with is a clunky pairing of words that still makes little sense by film’s end.

Collateral Beauty is probably the best-looking Hallmark movie you’ll see at the theaters this holiday season. It’s a gauzy and manipulative endeavor packed with movie stars doing their sad and redemptive best before hopefully cheering you up. There’s nothing that can’t be overcome with a good group of friends who only want what’s best for you while they take part in a criminal conspiracy to defraud you of your business stakes. That’s because even the most nefarious of behaviors can be forgiven with the right actor to provide a twinkle of the eye, a little swooning musical score to tell the audience how and when to feel, and the backdrop of lightly swirling snowfall. It’s a universe that refuses to allow Will Smith to stay sad and so it intervenes. Collateral Beauty has its draws, namely its core of great actors who each find some point of emotional grounding to their character’s plight. The finest actor in the movie is Harris (Moonlight) who radiates tremendous empathy and a bittersweet serenity. I’d watch the movie from her perspective. To Loeb’s credit, the movie is more grounded and less fanciful than its premise could have lead. It doesn’t sink to the depths of a Seven Pounds (“Do not touch the jellyfish”). Waterworks are shed all around, hugs are evenly distributed, and I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a lump or two in my throat by film’s end. However, its emotional journey doesn’t feel anywhere as revelatory as Manchester by the Sea.

manchester-1Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is living out an ordinary existence as a Boston apartment complex maintenance man. His routine is rudely interrupted when he receives news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has fallen deathly ill. On the car ride north to Manchester, Joe passes away. Guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is entrusted to Lee much to his shock. “I was just supposed to be the back-up,” he says to himself to little avail. Lee wants to move back to Boston with his new ward but Patrick refuses, pleading that he already has a life in town he enjoys. Lee is itchy to leave because of his painful associations with his hometown, tracing back several years to a fateful night of tragedy he shared with his current ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee takes on the mantle of parent while trying to ignore the trauma he’s doing his very best to ignore with every fiber of his working-class Bostonian being.

The first impression from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s movie is just how achingly authentic it feels. We drop in on the lives of these hardscrabble folks and glean important details as we progress, better forming a clear picture as to why they carry such pain with them as penance. In simplistic terms, it’s a two hour-plus journey to reach a point where the main character can openly cry. It’s also much more than that. It’s an incisive character piece on grief and tragedy, a surprisingly funny movie, and an effortlessly engaging movie that swallows you whole with its familiar rhythms of life. There is no formula here for Lonergan. Each fifteen-minute sequence opens the movie up again for further re-examination, especially a middle passage that is truly devastating. It provides compelling evidence why Lee has decided to become a recluse drifting through life. It’s not that Lee is lonely; he’s actively disengaged from all communities and connections. There are three different potential openings with women who seemed flirty and interested that Lee could have capitalized upon, or at least pursued, but he does not. A woman spills a beer on his shirt and squeezes closer to apologize, pleading to buy him a drink. He coolly looks away, ignoring her, and instead chooses to wait until closing time so he can get into a drunken fight instead. Lee would rather feel pain than momentary pleasure.

manchesterbythesea_trailerThe movie is also a poignant father/son relationship told in waves, with as much humor as emotional breakdowns. Lee is trying to fix the situation the best way he can as if it was another clogged drain. He’s thrust into a parental position that he doesn’t feel fits. It’s not that he’s actively evading responsibility as he does try to accommodate his nephew, even driving him back and forth and covering for one of his two girlfriends to sleep over. Lee cannot work in his hometown because of his own lingering pain and also because nobody will give him a job thanks to the reputation he carries. For a long while it feels like Patrick isn’t even registering the death of his father except for his distress at the thought of his father’s body remaining in a freezer until the ground thaws for a burial. He’s trying to live a normal teenage life filled with activity like band practice, hockey practice, and juggling some alone time with his two girlfriends. He seems like a normal teenager with a normal teenage attitude, and that flies in the face of our expectations. Hedges (Kill the Messenger) provides a nice dose of awkward comedy to keep the movie from drowning in sadness. The burgeoning relationship between Lee and Patrick takes on new familial elements and dynamics and each is feeling out that new role. This movie is more than an elegant bummer.

Lonergan has only directed two movies prior to Manchester, both of them insightful, complex character studies with meaty parts for game actors. 2000’s You Can Count on Me cemented the wide appeal and remarkable talents of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. Then his follow-up, the criminally underseen Margaret, ran afoul with producers who wanted to trim its near three-hour running time. It was kept in limbo for five long years until 2011 where it met with a degree of fervent critical fandom, including yours truly. Manchester began as a starring vehicle for producer Matt Damon, but when scheduling conflicts got in the way, the project was reworked with Affleck in the lead and Lonergan told the story his creative impulses desired without studio interference. As a big fan of his previous directorial outings, I’m not surprised by the gripping results. He lets an audience draw conclusions from the impressions and pieces he offers, notably with Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) who he refers to as “not an alcoholic anymore.” There isn’t one big obvious scene but we’re given enough pointed clues about Patrick’s history with his mother and why Lee is adamant that his nephew does not live with his mother. The history of characters and their relationships follow this model, layering in further meaning as we continue at a safe distance in our seats. Things aren’t spelled out as they are allowed to breathe, the furtive connections becoming perceptible in time like a message written in the fog of a window. Lonergan has great affection for his characters and their flaws, insecurities, and struggles. This was evident in Margaret where the title character (vividly played by a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin) was a teenager exploding with emotions, opinions, and thoughts and Lonergan celebrated her for this fact. I appreciate Lonergan’s refusal to paint in broad strokes with all of his characters.

This is Affleck’s (The Finest Hours) movie and while good the more extroverted performers around him overshadow him. Affleck can be a gifted actor as evidenced with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He has a quiet intensity and a habit of burrowing inside himself to discover something raw and different. His performance feels like he’s trapped in a PTSD shield that saps the life from him. He’s drifting through his life and waiting to die, simply put. Because of his taciturn nature he doesn’t garner any sizeable monologues to spill out all his feelings. He has to use little moments and the nuances of choosing his words carefully. When he tells Patrick “I can’t beat it” those words are loaded with meaning that he can only convey in subtext. When he stops to process that Randi has gotten pregnant from another man we notice the subtle registration of pain and regret, a twinge of memories he’s trying to hold back. Affleck’s performance is very subdued for most of the movie but it’s in the final act where he cannot maintain his well-manicured bubble of resistance to the outside world. When Lee does start to cry, it will earn every ounce of your sympathy.

Williams (My Week with Marilyn) is more presence than character in the movie, but when she does stay long enough she leaves an emotionally gut-wrenching impression. I understand that “gut-wrenching” is a pejorative term but it’s really one of the more uplifting moments in the movie. That’s because her character’s reunion with Lee isn’t one of enmity but reconciliation, allowing her to make amends and say plenty of things that she’s been holding back for years. It’s an unburdening and once Williams starts it’s hard not to feel the flow of tears coming from your own eyes. She is a one-scene wonder, reminiscent of Viola Daivs in 2008 for Doubt, nominated for Best Supporting Actress and well deserving a win for one brilliantly acted scene. Fitting then that Davis looks to be Williams’ chief competition for Supporting Actress this year. I invested even more in this scene because the power of Randi’s emotional honesty almost pulls Lee out. He’s shaking, his voice cracking, and trying to stick to saying the customary conversational tokens that have gotten him through to this point. He’s avoiding confronting reality but the sheer emotive force of Randi almost pushes him to that genuine breakthrough.

If there is one noticeable drawback to such an exquisitely rendered film, it’s that it follows the narrative structure of real life perhaps a bit too faithfully. Life doesn’t normally follow a three-act structure with clearly defined character arcs and a carefully orchestrated system of measured payoffs. While Manchester by the Sea isn’t exactly an automatic entry in mumblecore paint drying, it’s certainly less indebted to familiar story structure, which does affect the overall motor of the story. You don’t have a strong sense of its overall direction, an end point, and while the pacing isn’t glacial it can start to feel bogged down in those wonderful New England details of everyday mundane life (how many times do we need to see Lee driving?). There are also probably more flashbacks than necessary to flesh out the characters in an implicit manner. If the movie wasn’t 137 minutes I might accuse it of padding its running time. It doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film but you feel a certain loss of structure and payoff. In contrast, Collateral Beauty is entirely reliant upon plot machinations and a formula serving a very Hollywood-styled ending. Sometimes maybe an audience would prefer a little more of a driving force and a little more oomph for an ending. While certainly lacking in just about every factor, I’d say that Collateral Beauty does feel more climactic with its conclusion than Manchester, which sort of rolls to a close that makes you say, “Oh, I guess that’s it then.” Sometimes realism can profit from a judicious nudging. Then again with Manchester it’s more the journey and Collateral Beauty is all about the destination.

manchesterWhile ostensibly being about two men overcoming the loss of someone close to them to function in everyday society once more with meaningful personal relationships, there’s quite a wide divide between Collateral Beauty and Manchester by the Sea. One represents a more calculated and morally dubious reflection of trauma as a theatrical game leading to Big Twists that are meant to leave an audience swooning from the magic of reconciliation. While fairly grounded on its own terms for a far majority of its time, Collateral Beauty can’t help itself and steers into a ditch of bad plotting, made even worse by the fact that it puts so much significance on its preposterous final destination. It manages to cheapen the movie as a whole in retrospect as an elaborate parlor trick that rivaled what the ethically challenged heroes of the tale were perpetrating. On the other side, Manchester by the Sea is a carefully observed and intimate portrait of grief and the consequences of self-destructive detachment from a larger world of compassion. The acting is terrific and lived in, authentic to its core and stuffed with meaningful details that Lonergan leaves to his audience to formulate. However, some of its indie auteur sensibilities do have a somewhat negative impact on the pacing and ultimate conclusive nature of the movie. It’s not that the film is open-ended; it’s just a “life goes on” kind of ending that doesn’t exactly inspire the strongest feelings of satisfaction. Grief will always be a topic that attracts filmmakers and especially actors because of its inescapable drama, stakes, and general relatabilty. I only implore any readers that if you’re trusting filmmakers with two hours of your emotion, make sure they earn that privilege.

Nate’s Grades:

Collateral Beauty: C

Manchester by the Sea: A-

RED 2 (2013)

RED_2_11Pretty much more of the same, RED 2 feels too safe, too breezy and light-hearted, and while still fun in spots, you garner the impression that what was once sufficiently silly has gone overboard. The jokes feel flat and the characters aren’t properly integrated, especially Helen Mirren and a vengeful hired killer (Byung-hun Lee). The villains are a tad bland, but we’re here for the wacky retired special agents, so it’s forgivable. However, the good guys feel like they’d rather be elsewhere. Too much of the story is taken up by the frustrating Bad Girlfriend Plot wherein our hero Frank (Bruce Willis) is harangued by his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). I’m not even saying that her character is nagging or shrewish or anything like that, but the movie treats her like she’s dragging him down. We’re also treated to many comedic setups of Sarah trying her hand as a spy to mixed results. Parker is actually the best part of the movie, and maybe because she’s the only character that gets to do something different. RED 2 lacks the visual style of the first film and, inevitably, the freshness of its cavalier old fogies. The action is passable but is that really the adjective you want for a movie? I don’t know what more I was expecting since the first RED felt like a well-executed lark, but at least it had enough style and an impish attitude to leave me entertained. Its sequel is likeable but mostly trying to get by on your good feelings for the last movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Hitchcock (2012)

I think Alfred Hitch1897cock would be amused at his continued notoriety, not just from the quality of his films but also from the magnitude of his own presence. 2012 offers not one but two different movies about the master of suspense, both of which are oddly close in time period. HBO’s The Girl explored Tippi Hedren’s account of what it was like to film The Birds, with Hitchcock being a provocateur. The more straight-forwardly named Hitchcock looks at Alfred’s trials to make one of his seminal films, 1960’s Psycho. I only wish that the movie spent more time on Psycho and less time on the Hitchcock marriage.

Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is starting to feel like he’s being left behind in Hollywood. He’s looking for his new project, something to rekindle his creative fervor, get those juices flowing once more. Then he comes across the book Psycho, based upon the murders of Ed Gein, a man who thought his dead mother was telling him to kill and make skin suits of his victims (Gein is also the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs; truly the gift that keeps on giving for horror). Murder, cross-dressing, incest. You can understand the hesitation from studio heads to bankroll the picture, even with the great Hitchcock name attached. With the sturdy support of his unflappable wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock puts his own money and clout on the line to see Psycho through. As the pressure mounts, Alfred is worried that his wife is spending a bit too much of her time with a certain screenwriter who wishes to woo her efforts away.

93856_galSir Alfred was a blunt individual so I will follow suit and mince no words – this movie is terrible. How could it possibly be? It has tremendous acting talent and the rich angle of looking at the making of one of Hollywood’s most controversial and famous movies of all time the groundbreaking Psycho. Alas, it’s when the movie takes its many sidesteps away from the behind-the-scenes action of Psycho is where it goes astray. First off, I find the narrative framing around the marriage of the Hitchcocks to be superficial and hamstrung. We’re telling this vastly interesting story and grounding it in a very slight manner, gauging every creative struggle through the prism of whether or not Alfred and Alma will stick together. I assume it’s supposed to provide an emotional entry point for the movie, but I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about the jealous spasms Alfred felt as his wife spent more and more time with a caddish screenwriter, and boy did that storyline get tiresome. I want to know more about Psycho and not this dumb portrayal of martial woes told with such graceless handling. The whole portrayal seems so minute and clumsy and such a poor framing device when the making of Psycho is a juicy enough story. I didn’t need the focus to be on whether the Hitchcock marriage will persevere. Oh, and the resolution for this feels completely pulled from thin air, without any groundwork laid to explain the about-face into compassion in those final minutes.

Then there’s the portrayal of Alfred Hitchcock himself, which is so dubiously shallow when it comes to psychology. Oh, he’s obsessed with blonde leading ladies? Oh he’s a bit of a control freak? Oh he can be overbearing and demanding and standoffish? Wow, what powerful insights into arguably the most famous director in movie history. The movie, adapted by John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan), feels like it was made by someone who did the bare minimum of research on the man. There are no new insights or even mildly interesting ones to be found. It’s the standard boilerplate repeated with different actors. And then there are the nails-on-a-chalkboard scenes where Hitchcock imagines himself talking confessionally to none other than Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). Excuse me? Oh my goodness do these tacky sequences just grate. I don’t even understand their inclusion. Is this a manifestation of Hitchcock’s own sense of madness when it comes to moviemaking? Does he feel some connection to the horrible disturbed man who inspired his newest film? Does Hitchcock only feel like he can communicate to a figment of his own imagination? Whatever the reason, I wanted to smack myself in the head every time Hitch and Gein had a heart-to-heart. I should have known I’d be in for a bumpy ride when, in the movie’s opening minutes, a news reporter asks Hitchcock, after the premier of 1959’s North by Northwest, why he doesn’t just hang it up? Did this idiot even see North by Northwest? Would you ask Spielberg if he should retire after viewing Saving Private Ryan or Kubrick after A Clockwork Orange?

Then there’s the matter of Hopkins as Hitchcock. It never feels like the right fit. Turkey jowls aside, the man doesn’t look too similar to Hitchcock nor does he adopt a demeanor that proves convincing. Sure he goes for that highly imitable voice and cadence that Hitch is well remembered for, particularly his openings on his own TV show. You never feel like Hopkins has a real strong bead on the character, and surely the fault lies with the weak characterization relying on the collective knowledge of Hitchcock’s outsized public persona. Likewise, Mirren (The Debt) is fine but gets to play another of her steely strong-willed matriarchs. Mirren won’t let you done when it comes to performance but, given the lack of strong characterization, she goes on autopilot. The best actor in the movie is surprisingly Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers) who has a striking similarity to Janet Leigh, and not just in what you’re thinking. She’s instantly likeable and takes the Hitchcock peculiarities in stride, putting up a strong front but voicing her concerns when appropriate.

94506_galDirector Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil!) gooses up his story with all sorts of horror genre techniques, including editing fake outs and violent edits. I’m also unsure why so many liberties needed to be taken with the retelling of this story. I’m not going to be a person decrying the use of fictionalized elements in a true-life story for dramatic effect (I loved Argo), but you have to do so in a way that tells a better story without getting too far away from the essential truth of the matter. Hitchcock, in raising the talents of Alma, attributes many of Psycho’s development achievements to her keen womanly insights when they came from others. That’s fine, except that the movie portrays her in such a rarefied state of genius that she quickly becomes the movie’s surefire narrative cheat. Having problem with the last act? Let’s have Alma fix it. Having problems with the editing? Let’s have Alma fix that. It’s not compelling of a story for one character to chiefly have all the answers instinctively and without any sense of struggle. I understand that Alma did a lot of unaccredited work on Hitchcock’s movies, though it wasn’t uncommon for women to be screenwriters at that time and you’d think the pull of being a Mrs. Hitchcock would get her well-deserved credit. Regardless, I wish that Gervasi and McLaughlin had given Alma more depth than being put upon wife/secret savant collaborator.

It’s a shame because there’s a genuinely interesting movie to be had somewhere in here. The making of Psycho was fraught with difficulties and the studios just didn’t get it. Watching Hitchcock work through that process and persevere would be far more interesting. I enjoyed the multitude of famous cameos, like Michael Stuhlbarg as Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock’s agent and eventual head of Universal Studios, and even Ralph Macchio as Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano. I suppose the ins and outs concerning one of the most famous movies of all time could be considered, erroneously I feel, to be too “inside baseball.” That’s why I think the filmmakers expanded the romantic drama angle and had it consume the majority of the running time. Often the stupid perils of the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic squabbles feel so petty and cheap considering the magnitude of the work going on. Hitchcock feels like a movie that found the least interesting and essential angle to tell the story of the making of Psycho. Diehard movie fans might find some fun to be had with the minutia of Hollywood and Hitchcock’s life, but I cannot fathom how anyone could view this portrayal as effective. It’s not insightful, it’s not challenging, it’s not relevant, and it’s certainly not entertaining. This movie is not deserving of the name it bears.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Debt (2011)

A tense and mature spy thriller that’s as well written as it is acted, The Debt is a thriller that even stops to ponder some serious moral ambiguities along the way. Back in 1965, a group of Israel agents (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas) were sent to Berlin to capture a notorious ex-Nazi doctor (Jasper Christensen) and bring him back for justice. When things don’t go according to plan, the group must decide what is justifiable in the name of moral cost. In 1997, the aged former agents (Helen Mirren, Cirian Hinds, Tom Wilkinson) have to deal with the full consequences of their actions. A far majority of the film takes place in the 60s, and it’s for the best considering that’s where most of the tension and interest reside. As a thriller, drama, and non-linear mystery, there’s always something going on. The film is not without its genre clichés, but the sequences of holding Christensen (Quantum of Solace) hostage rise beyond genre mucking. He is a true monster and his dialogues with the various agents are chilling, reminiscent of Hannibal Lector’s tête-à-têtes. The cast is uniformly good, even Worthington, but the real star is Chastain (The Help, Tree of Life). She is magnetic. It’s a shame that The Debt felt it needed to tie up its loose ends in a conventional ending that discards the film’s more ambitious moral quandary. I suppose the toll of false identities and moral relativism just doesn’t make audiences happy like good old-fashioned vengeance. I guess that’s a debt everyone would rather have paid.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)

This lushly animated tale about good owls, and bad owls, but mostly owls feels indebted to Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIHM. There’s a legendary story about the guardians who would save the… remaining owls? The plot doesn’t ever really leap beyond the basic fantasy concepts of good and evil, heroic and manipulative. It’s hard for the tale’s drama to reach grandiose heights because, well, it’s owls. Not anthropomorphic owls, pretty much plain old owls. Some characters were just hard to distinguish between. I can firmly say that some things work better on page than screen, and descriptions of grand owl societies and owl-on-owl combat are definitely items that, when fully realized in such a literal fashion, just come across as goofy. Being directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), the movie looks gorgeously rendered but fails to leave any emotional mark for anybody who has ever seen a scrappy band of misfits topple the mean bad guys. The action follows the Snyder fast-slow-fast visual motif, which allows the audience opportunities to drink in the visual effects work. The mostly Australian vocal cast, plus Helen Mirren, provides some levels of amusement, but it’s the story that ultimately disappoints. Legends of the Guardians looks fantastic, but it’s story is far from legendary. And they needed to have a pop song by Owl City because the man has “owl” in his name, apparently.

Nate’s Grade: C+

R.E.D. (2010)

I can watch Helen Mirren fire high-powered weapons all day. RED is a jaunt throwaway that manages to be far more entertaining than it has any right to be. This isn’t excess on the level of The A-Team, nor is it all cynical and emotionless like Wanted. RED is the film that The Expendables could have been with a bit more polish and a little less muscle flexing. The premise almost seems worn out by this point in 2010: retired CIA agents are being hunted down and killed for some mysterious reason. Thus Bruce Willis must travel across the country and recruit his former spooks like Morgan Freeman, a daffy John Malkovich, and dame Mirren. He also gets a rather charming romance with Mary-Louise Parker (TV’s Weeds) as a pension customer service rep that Willis dials up for small talk. She gets whisked along this madcap adventure and enjoys it for the ride that it is. And I think that’s the best summation of the film. What other movie of this sort has actors of this caliber? Four Oscar winners, one nominee, plus solid work from Karl Urban (Star Trek) and beloved character actor Brian Cox to boot. The film definitely has a style, slick enough to please without being heavy-handed to rip you out of the film. The plot may be full of holes, the characters aren’t fully drawn, and certain action sequences are derivative, but thanks to the charms of its golden cast, RED is fun while it lasts.

Nate’s Grade: B

State of Play (2009)

This is a solidly engaging mystery with some twists and turns that don’t come out of left field. Russell Crowe is a journalist investigating the murder of a Congressional aide, who just happened to be having an affair with Ben Affleck, his old friend. There are strong performances all around by the cast, though Rachel McAdams seems superfluous as a blogger-turned-sidekick except for allowing the movie to barely touch upon the idea of print journalism dying. The biggest issue is the pacing. The movie stays at a constant simmer, which works for grabbing your interest but then the final plot blows feel lacking because the narrative has not risen in tension. In fact, I’d say the conclusion to one of the two main mysteries is downright disappointing the way it fails to dovetail with the other, larger mystery. There is a lot more that could be said over the state of modern newspapers and the inherent biases that need be kept at bay. State of Play is an intelligent thriller but ultimately too limited by the condensed framework of its script. This movie feels like it has more ideas to share, ethics to chew over, questions to tease out, characters to ripen, and that’s probably because State of Play is based upon a 2003 BBC miniseries that gave sufficient time for these elements to flourish. Still, I can’t knock this relevant, political, old-fashioned conspiracy thriller. It’s too rare these days that Hollywood churns out smart movies like this for adults.

Nate’s Grade: B

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

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

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