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An American Carol (2008)

Being a conservative in Hollywood is like being a gay Republican – tough business. Director David Zucker has a notable history with comedy, having helmed Airplane!, the Naked Gun series, and the back half of the Scary Movies. He says that he converted to conservatism in the wake of 9/11, and Zucker actually wrote and directed a short for the 2004 Republican National Convention that was deemed too edgy for the Grand Old Party. Conservatives have also garnered the reputation for not having the best sense of humor, and Zucker’s An American Carol will do little to change this belief.

Michael Malone (Kevin Farley) is an egotistical, fat, liberal documentary filmmaker whose latest work is titled, “Die You American Pigs.” Catchy, ain’t it? Malone wants to abolish the Fourth of July (would we just skip to July 5th?) and plans to protest a Trace Adkins concert for the troops. A batch of inept Islamic terrorists want to bomb the concert and decide into tricking Malone into assisting their goal. He will score them media passes to get onstage at the concert venue. Following the Charles Dickens’ playbook, Malone is first visited by the spirit of his idol, John F. Kennedy (Chriss Anglin), who horrifies Malone by saying war is sometimes necessary (really, conservatives are trying to reclaim Kennedy?). Three spirits will visit him although he spends almost all of his time with the ghost of General Patton (Kelsey Grammer). The ghostly general takes Malone on a trip to see what the alternative versions of U.S. history had the country avoided war at all costs. Malone stays defiant until he meets up with the Angel of Death (also Trace Adkins, because?) and sees the error of his “America-hating” ways. I don’t want to spoil things too much but the movie ends with an expanded Trace Adkins concert saluting the brave men and women in the armed forces.

Some from the opposing political viewpoints will find An American Carol to be infuriating. To those angry few I say get over it, because this movie is simply too lazy to get angry over. It barely reaches 77 minutes before the credits roll. Zucker and company tend to stretch their canvas too broadly, to the point that they aren’t exaggerating to lampoon but setting up cheap jokes. Michael Malone is fat. Michael Malone smells. Michael Malone falls down. Liberals hate America and want the terrorists to win. It’s so easy to write this material because there’s nothing topical or nuanced or even socially relevant. The movie beats reliable figures of conservative agita. When the movie tries to slam college professors as being dippy hippies brainwashing teens about the insurmountable ills of America, it just gets dumb (those people spend 10-15 years studying in a specialized academic field). There is no teeth to any of this satire because it’s all just recycled caricatures with the wit ground down. There isn’t anything of true satirical substance here. I don’t even get some of the satire, like the ACLU is depicted as a cluster of zombies with briefcases. What does that mean? Needless to say, the skewering of Arabs is mostly cartoonish and offensive. The flick constantly makes fun of the documentary art form, saying they are inferior to “real movies.” Because Michael Moore has an Oscar does that mean that the history of documentary film has to be slandered as being nothing more than transparent propaganda (at an awards ceremony, the top documentary is honored with the “Leni Riefenstahl Award”)? Marginalizing an entire art form seems rash, especially considering that Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed over $220 million worldwide. As of this writing, An American Carol, a “real movie,” has grossed seven million and counting.

The film deals in distasteful absolutes. Every idea is presented crudely in black and white. By the film’s standards, being anti-war and anti-troops are inseparably linked. In my mind, and this might be crazy, but it seems to me that the most pro-troops one could be would be hoping for them all to return home alive and healthy. An American Carol attempts to justify the ongoing War in Iraq, though it conveniently only ever flashes to combat in Afghanistan, the war that a majority of the public agrees with. It makes a case that war is sometimes necessary, though it has to flash back to Hitler and World War II to find a morally justified military engagement that everyone can feel god about. I agree that war is sometimes a reasonable option, but the movie paints all pacifists as wimpy appeasers. George Washington (Jon Voight) even steps in at one point to argue for the necessity of war in reference to the War on Terror. Did the filmmakers forget that Washington spent great expense to keep the nation out of foreign wars in his two terms? Isn’t it also condescending and objectionable to have Washington say freedom of speech is misused when it goes against the government? I think the Founding Fathers would realize the importance of freedom of speech, including offensive speech. Isn’t it also somewhat ironic to use slave-owners as mouthpieces for the merits of freedom? An American Carol says that disagreement is the same as dissent; so refusing to support one’s government blindly during a time of war is traitorous. Criticism is not anti-American. It’s insulting to all rationale human beings. Zucker and crew make their case look just as myopic and dismissive as those they choose to ridicule.

The acting neither hinders nor helps the material. Farley is a game comedian but he cannot do much with such lightweight material. There are several celebrity cameos including James Woods, Dennis Hopper, Bill O’Reilly, Mary Hart, David Alan Grier, Gary Coleman, Leslie Nielsen, Zachary Levi, Kevin Sorbo, and Paris Hilton. When Zucker is calling favors into the likes of Paris Hilton, you know things cannot be solid.

Here’s the problem. It’s harder to satirize from a conservative point of view. Conservatism believes that the status quo is best or that things were better back in the day. Liberalism believes that society can always improve, so a liberal point of view would tweak the present situation in order to call attention to remaining improvements. A conservative point of view would make fun of that possible change. This is the same reason why documentaries, like it or not, typically have a more progressive bent, and it’s because the filmmakers are presenting a case for change or outrage. Why would anyone devote himself or herself for years to create a film that says the world is peachy? Now I’m not saying that conservatism and humor are conflicting concepts, but it just makes it harder to be smarter. Making fun of Good Night, and Good Luck is not trying hard enough. How dare George Clooney make a film about the media cowering and failing to question our elected leaders and have it be applicable to today’s world.

The Zucker gag-a-minute spoof style doesn’t necessarily translate well to political satire. I wasn’t expecting much with An American Carol. When they exploit 9/11, taking Malone to the wreckage of the World Trade Center to make its case, well the movie stops being a satire and just implodes. It hits its tired targets with a sledgehammer. The satire is extremely lazy, the slapstick is dumb, and the movie specializes in being obnoxious, coloring the world in two extremes. This isn’t satire. This is just cheap and petty. Seriously, making fun of Michael Moore is like four years too late. Moore is a figure worthy of satire but the best that the movie can come up with is he’s fat and hates America? That he’s angry because he couldn’t get girls when he was younger and all those studly military recruits did? That’s not satire, that’s just excessive name-calling. An American Carol presents a new low for Zucker and I think even he knows it. On the DVD commentary track, Zucker, co-writer Lewis Friedman (BASEketball), and actor Kevin Farley basically lambaste the final product, often criticizing their own movie. The derisive commentary track is more enjoyable than the film itself.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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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

Transformers (2007)

Once again Hollywood is quick to prove that if any television show emits some level of nostalgia, or merchandising potential, it is only a matter of time before it finds itself reconfigured as a big screen blockbuster movie. In all honesty, I was never a huge Transformers fan; I was more into Ghostbusters and then transitioned into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It may be sacrilegious, but I thought the knockoff cartoon/action figures, The Go Bots, were just as good. Steven Spielberg and critically derided director Michael Bay (Bad Boys II, Armageddon) have teamed up to bring the world a lengthy and noisy Transformers feature film. I can’t wait for the Go Bots to get their own equally pricey close-up.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is your typical teenager obsessed with getting his own car. He can only afford an old Camaro at a used car lot, and his dreams of impressing the hot girl in school (Megan Fox). But Sam’s car isn’t just any old busted jalopy, no sir, it is really a robot in disguise from another planet. Sam’s car, codenamed Bumblebee, is apart of a robotic race known as the Autobots, led by their leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen returning to voice with gravitas). They can transform into vehicles that they scan with their optical sights. The Autobots are trying to save the planet from their evil counterparts, the Decepticons, who have already infiltrated our world in search of their fallen leader, Megatron. It seems Sam holds the key to the survival of Earth. His great grandfather was an Arctic explorer and happened upon the frozen sight of Megatron. He left behind an artifact that reveals the location of the chilled robot as well as a source of unparalleled power known as the Allspark. Needless to say, the military and the Secretary of Defense (John Voight) are a little aghast at how their weapons stack up to big bad robots.

Michael Bay was born to direct a live-action, ultra expensive Transformers movie. The testosterone is through the roof and the film worships everything shiny, fast, and automotive. This is the kind of movie that fits exactly into the artistic parameters of Bay. The film is one gorgeous product placement orgy that is all about the eye candy; the cars are hot and desirable, the car chases are cool, the explosions are a lovely shade of orange, and Megan Fox is quite hot and desirable too (engaged to a 90210 actor? Why oh why, Megan?). The special effects are downright flawless and the action sequences are enormous. The scale of destruction is, like most aspects of Transformers, cranked to such a high degree that summer satisfaction can only ensue. Everything is bigger in Michael Bay world. Transformers is Bay’s best movie so far and it delivers the goods when it comes to hyper-kinetic action and plenty of thrills.

While the movie runs on silliness it also keeps its wits about it and delivers solid and exciting action with a breathless pace. What really surprised me about Transformers is how much humor they squeezed into 143 minutes of loud and hyper bombast. Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (The Island, Mission: Impossible 3) have a great economy to their storytelling. They also have created a wacky teen comedy that just so happens to also be inhabited by giant robots. Much of the first hour is spent with Sam and his attempts to look cool with his new ride and impress the pretty girl. Sam is hocking his family wares on eBay and the Decepticons are on the hunt for… LadiesMan217. There’s a lengthy sequence where five Autobots have to duck and hide outside Sam’s house so he doesn’t get in trouble with his parents. Ma and Pa Witwicky look out the windows, and the robots dodge getting caught, and it’s like a classic bumbling slapstick comedy. A good action movie can become a great one when aided by well-timed humor, and Transformers has so many quips, sight gags, and goofy sidesteps (“Mountain Dew machine must destroy all humans!”) that is could be considered the most expensive comedy of all time (take a seat, Evan Almighty).

There is, however, a price to be paid for all this comedy and that is that no one acts with any true sense of awe. They are witness to large walking and talking monsters of metal that are out to enslave the planet – there has got to be some wonder there, but the film doesn’t treat anything seriously. Its jokey nature keeps the film from being anything more than disposable, throwaway entertainment. I mean, I find it difficult to take any movie seriously that features a robot “relieve” itself on John Turturro.

Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia) carries the film on his sturdy shoulders. The shape of Transformers has more to do with his horny, smart allecky character than the robots that fight. Normally the only thing required in an effects-heavy action flick are some fast legs and a healthy set of lungs, but LeBeouf has charisma to spare. He has a young Tom Hanks everyman feel to him. The greatest compliment I can give him is that he is the most memorable figure in a movie with big brawling robots. Fox is pretty easy on the eyes. Voight is adept at playing government figures in times of national peril. If you need a guy to stare at something massive, or formative, or formatively massive, and utter, “My God,” then Voight is your man. Kevin Dunn and Julie White provide nice comic additions as Sam’s mother and father.

Transformers may be a perfect slice of summer thrills, but unlike its titular gigantic robots, it’s little more than meets the eye. The movie loses steam whenever it deters from its main story involving Sam. I understand that the filmmakers were trying to widen their story scope, but nothing is gained by the inclusion of such useless characters like the overweight super computer hacker who lives at home with his mom. There’s an elite team of national security analysts and they all happen to be scruffy multi-cultural hippies. We have a blond Aussie (with a nose ring, oh so rebellious) who discovers the Decepticon signal and then, well, she sits in a room for a long while and then mostly sits on her hands during the climax. The opening follows a band of soldiers in the Middle East (which the film reminds us is where Qatar is, because apparently it does not feel that your core Transformers fan has a basic grip on geography) who also must reach the bigwigs in Washington with important info on these killer robots. These dangling storylines could be lost and little momentum would be lost. None of these extra characters are given a lot of attention. Most of them will vanish for long stretches so that when they do reappear you’re reminded how much you did not miss their absence. You’re going to need stock roles, like military men and tech geeks, but Transformers has cast its lot with the simple story of a boy’s first car and his unyielding teenage hormones. Transformers could use a good pruning for balance.

The robust action sequences are somewhat hampered by the typical Michael Bay ADD edits, but what really hurts the action sequences are the robots themselves. The original Transformers were designed smoothly, because in all reality they were animated toys and needed to function for kids. These 21st century Transformers have parts all over the place. There are gears and wheels and who knows what sticking out everywhere. They look far too cluttered, like a little kid’s art project where he keeps slathering on more junk. As a result of this robo design, when it comes to action you may not have a clue what’s actually happening. When the big robots wrestle you’ll be left trying to piece together in your mind which part is the robot mouth, the robot head, the robot fists/claws/drill/whatever. I suppose in a way this kind of demanding user activity is similar to watching scrambled porn; both involve trying to dissect the image into something workable and, thusly, satisfying to the senses. That’s right, I compared Transformers to scrambled porn, which is also quite more than meets the eye.

Obviously, with a film about powerful robots from space, there is going to be a stopgap of logic. If you can accept interstellar robots that arrived from a robotic planet, oh and by the way, they learned English from the Internet (it’s a wonder they speak in full sentences), then you should be able to shrug off any other shortfalls in logic. Transformers was never too deep a subject to being with; every episode of the cartoon revolved around the Autobots and the Decepticons battling over new energon cubes, and that was all the plot needed for a show about robots that fight.

There could be 20 minutes sliced out. Lots of ancillary characters are just dropped. There may be too much humor. The climax is way too long. The dialogue is corny. And yet with all its flaws considered, Transformers is an exhilarating entry into the world of summer smashups and blown eardrums. Michael Bay may never stretch his creative wings with a Victorian costume drama, but the man does what he does well. Transformers is a perfect match for Bay’s noisy and boisterous sense of action and his love of things fast and expensive. There isn’t much below the surface when it comes to Transformers, but it’s such a fun and exciting popcorn movie that it’s hard to argue with the results.

Nate’s Grade: B

National Treasure (2004)

The premise for National Treasure, the newest Jerry Bruckheimer action film, is something of a mess. According to the film, during the Crusades a magnificent treasure was found. The Knights Templar swore to protect it, and the Masonic order carried the vow through the ages. The founding fathers of the Unites States were among this Masonic order, and they went about hiding the fabulous riches and set up a series of elaborate clues to discover its whereabouts. These clues include symbols on the back of our currency and, get this, a secret invisible message on… the back of the Declaration of Independence. Yes, the Declaration of Independence is a treasure map. The silly premise for National Treasure equates the Declaration of Independence with a Denny’s place mat. Can something this outlandish make for a good movie? Well, it depends on your working definition of “good.”

Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is somewhat of a laughing stock amongst his peers. His family name is cursed with the crazy belief in some long lost treasure hidden by the founding fathers. His father (Jon Voight) rues the family name being attached to such foolish theories. Of course such foolish theories in Hollywood are always right, no matter how stupid (did I mention the Declaration of Independence is a treasure map?). Ben and his treasure hunting partner Ian Howe (Sean Bean) find a definitive clue, but then Ian double-crosses on Ben and, gasp, wants the treasure for himself. This turns into a race to see who can steal the Declaration of Independence, though Ben wishes to steal it to protect the document and the treasure. Along the way, Ben teams up with a techno-nerd (Justin Bartha) and a hot government official (Diane Kruger) to crisscross historical monuments and sites to unravel the clues before Ian can.

National Treasure is dumb. Little to absolutely nothing makes sense in this film. This is an obvious, embarrassing attempt to ride the popular coattails of The Da Vinci Code and Americanize the quest. Except that National Treasure really comes across as some half-baked movie version of a kid’s educational game show.

There are so many holes, so where do I begin? First off, why would the founding fathers make it so pointlessly, hopelessly elaborate to find this stockpile of treasure? I’m talking crazy complicated, like having one clue involve finding a ship buried in the Arctic Circle. Yes, the Arctic Circle. Supposedly, the founding fathers decided to hide the treasure because they didn’t want the British to get their grubby, nice-fitting gloves all over it. Something tells me that the founding fathers had more important things going on, like, oh I don’t know, a war! It’s purely absurd to have Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and all the rest more interested in hiding some treasure than breaking from England and building an independent nation based on their ideals.

There are some other head-smackers, like the fact that an assembly of clues has been left entirely undisturbed in 200 plus years, like a single special brick. And, for that matter, how does Cage cut through mortar so easily with just a pocket knife? If there’s a gigantic catacomb under D.C., then what’s holding up the city? How come 200 year old oil still burns as well? Wouldn’t that have dried out by now?

Cage reverts back to his manic show-offy character behavior. In Bruckheimer movies, Cage seems to have theoretic spurts here and there, like he keeps sticking some extremity in an off-screen light socket. He’s generally likeable but his character comes across more like some social studies teacher’s daydream. Bartha and Kruger add less-than-snappy one-liners, but their presence never becomes grating. Bean seems to be playing the stock bad guy role he always is, whether it be GoldenEye, Don’t Say a Word, or Patriot Games.

Sure, even the Indiana Jones films had plot holes (how does closing your eyes guard you from the wrath of God?) but their thrilling adventures overcame any quibbles. National Treasure, on the other hand, is an adventure lacking anything thrilling. This is the first action film to put me to sleep. I can forgive an action/adventure flick being dumb but being boring is a capital offense.

The action sequences in National Treasure are never fully thought out; they usually involve Cage and his cronies outrunning Sean Bean’s group of thugs (repeat). The film’s best moment is the actual theft of the Declaration of Independence. This is the lone sequence in the film that feels like thought was put into drawing out suspense, thinking of natural and interesting complications, and, surprisingly, having the sequence not be overcome by idiocy. After this scene, National Treasure descends into ill-conceived chase scenes strung between crazy elaborate clue hunting. By the time the film reaches its anticlimactic ending, you may have rustled through your change, eyeing the backs of quarters and dimes to ensure there’s no hidden message about a sequel.

National Treasure is a ridiculously stupid, inexcusably boring, ineptly plotted historical adventure for people who get their history solely from movies. Bruckheimer and Cage have an up-and-down partnership, but National Treasure starts with the worst film premise of the year and can?t go much further. Fans of clue-hunting adventure tales may excuse the gaping plot holes, and National Treasure has found a sizeable audience willing to go along for the ride, but the movie doesn’t contain much thrills, entertainment, or anything historically resonant. National Treasure should have stayed buried.

Nate’s Grade: C

Tomb Raider (2001)

Lara Croft is a woman with bountiful resources… living in a lush mansion with wealth and family prestige. She’s an adventurer with a taste for action along the lines of the Raiders of the Lost Ark kind. It seems that time is drawing close to a planetary alignment that occurs once every 5,000 years as they always do in movies. This alignment supposedly unleashes an ancient object that has the ability to alter time itself. Croft is drawn in by a secret society that wants a mysterious artifact she discovers in her property that can lead to the locations for the time altering device. Now Croft must step out and try and beat the big bad guy (Ian Glenn) to the chase and get to the device before he and his society get their grubby hands all over it.

This is a movie that is light on characters yet at the same time has so many extraneous ones. The bad men are being led by fellow tomb raider Alex Cross (Daniel Craig), who also happens to be a former flame of Croft’s. Lara is saddled with a geeky computer whiz who just happens to be British, because he keeps spouting phrases like “blimey” and “bugger” all the freakin’ time. Croft also employs a butler, because, someone has to take care of that huge house. If this wasn’t enough the big bad employs an assortment of typical evil henchmen that are distinguishable by tattoos alone. Add on top of this heap the flashbacks Croft has of her long missing father Lord Croft (played by Jolie’s real father, Jon Voight). All of these dueling personalities clog the action and the pacing.

Front and center, Angelina Jolie is the living embodiment of Lara Croft. She fills out all the curves, the attitude, and the look to a perfected T. It’s also refreshing to have the first female action star since Sigourney Weaver called an alien a “bitch.” Jolie may possibly fall into that lexicon, surely Tomb Raider is her franchise and her embodiment. Jolie gives Croft the muscle but the screenwriters fail her in giving her the flesh and blood. Though there is some partial flesh as Jolie tosses off a towel to trot into a shower. Tomb Raider falls into the “rule of five”: if there are five or more people credited with the script (including in this instance the director himself) then there was no script at all.

The action of Tomb Raider is loud and explosive, but rather lifeless and dull. West has managed to create bombastically mundane action sequences. Never once did anything from the screen arouse my interest, except for the female lead of course. The story has its characters travel to exotic locales and impressive sets of ancient caves and temples, but it’s all window dressing. The pretty scenery and locations only mask how ineffective and boring the action is. And for an action picture, when the audience begins to notice how pretty the scenery is compared with the action – you’re not doing your job.

Simon West is not exactly a director to be trusted with any sort of project. West brought audiences Con Air and The General’s Daughter, a film that tried to decry rape but then took sadistic pleasure in recreating it again and again. So what better man to helm the project of the buxom video game heroine than a man who has brought us cartoonish violence and horrific rape? The camera framing of Tomb Raider takes a few notes from the Jennifer Love Hewitt experiment that was I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Jolie’s breasts are always in frame, and at certain times it seems like the camera is lowering just to get them in there for the sake of exposure.I’ll just write this up as “authentically” bringing the game to life.

Despite the attempt this video game turned into a movie feels exactly like a video game turned into a movie. It’s complete with some laughably atrocious dialogue (“You know what today is?” “The 15th.” “And that is never a good day.”), and despite the running time of an hour and a half feels like an eternity longer. Tomb Raider never gets off the ground even with the added push of some pretty good special effects. Jolie may have an action vehicle at her helm and that’s fine with me. Keep her. Just make sure to get rid of everyone else. Oh, and I will be buying the electronica induced soundtrack.

Nate’s Grade: D

Pearl Harbor (2001)

It turns out we went to war in 1941 not because of Japanese aggression, Hitler’s dominance in Europe, or the protection of freedom and democracy. Sorry kids. The real reason we went to war was to complicate and then clear up Kate Beckinsale’s love life. At least that’s what director Michael Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace would tell you with their indulgent epic Pearl Harbor.

We open in Tennessee in the 20s with two boys who dream of being pilots. Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) grow into strapping young lads who flash their hot dog flyin’ skills at basic training, which brings them chagrin from superiors but admiration from peers. Rafe falls in love with a young nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), who goes against ARMY rule and passes Rafe in his eye exam portion when he has a slight case of dyslexia. But he’s just so cuuuute. The romance builds but Rafe feels like he’s grounded when all he wants to do is fly, and volunteers to fight in the RAF over in Europe. He promises he’ll be back to see his lovely Evelyn. Of course he gets into an accident and everyone assumes that poor dyslexic Rafe is fertilizing a lawn somewhere with his remains. Hence Danny slowly but surely develops something for Evelyn in their periods of mourning, and the two consummate their puppy love with a tango in parachute sheets.

All seems well until Rafe returns back from the dead throwing a wrench into Evelyn’s second date parachute plans. Thus the Hollywood favorite of the love triangle endures until the end when the two fly boys enlist in the Doolittle attack against Japan, months after the ferocious attack on Pearl Harbor. The real purpose of the Doolittle attack was not militarily, but merely for morale. The real purpose it serves in the movie is to shave off an end on our love triangle.

Pearl Harbor allows us to follow a group of youthful and innocent starry-eyed kids from training to combat. Each seems pretty much exactly the same to each other. It’s near impossible to distinguish which character is which. It’s like the screenwriter didn’t even have the gall to resort to cliche supporting character roles, and he just made one character and duplicated it. The only one who was noticeable for me was the character of Red (Ewen Bremner, julien donkey boy himself), but that was simply because the man had a speech impediment. We also have our handful of young nurses alongside Beckinsale, and I had an easier time distinguishing between them; everyone had different hair colors and one was overweight. Thank you, heavy black haired nurse girl for making it easier for me to tell your characters apart.

]If you look in the pic, or the credits, you’ll see that two of the nurses would turn out to be Jennifer Garner (Alias) and Sara Rue (Less than Perfect), both stars of ABC shows, and ABC is owned by, yep, Disney. Coincidence? Probably. When they ran this on TV they actually advertised Jennifer Garner above Kate Beckinsale. That reminded me of when Seven ran on TV shortly after Kevin Spacey had won his well-deserved 1999 Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty, and they gave him second-billing in the advertisement over Morgan Freeman, the movie’s true main character.

Affleck has a hayseed Southern twang, but seems to mysteriously disappear for long stretches. Hartnett seems to talk with a deep creak, like a door desperately trying to be pushed open. Beckinsale manages to do okay with her material, but more magnificently manages to never smear a drop of that lipstick of hers during the entire war. We could learn a lot from her smear-defying efforts. Gooding Jr. is pretty much given nothing to work with. I’m just eternally grateful he didn’t go into a usual Cuba frenzy when he shot down a Zero.

Michael Bay has brought us the ADD screenings that are the past, loud hits of The Rock and Armageddon. Teamed up with his overactive man-child producer Jerry Bruckheimer once more, Pearl Harbor is less Bay restrained to work on narrative film as it is Bay free-wheeling. His camera is loose and zig-zagging once more to a thousand edits and explosions. Bay is a child at heart that just loves to see things explode. When he should show patience and restraint he decides to just go for the gusto and make everything as pretty or explosive as possible. This is not a mature filmmaker.

Despite the sledge hammer of bad reviews, Pearl Harbor is not as bad as it has been made out to be. The love story is inept and the acting is sleep-inducing, unless when it’s just funny. It doesn’t start off too badly, but twenty minutes in the movie begins sinking. The centerpiece of the film is the actual Pearl Harbor bombing that clocks in after ninety minutes of the movie. The forty-minute attack sequence is something to behold. The pacing is good and the action is exciting with some fantastic special effects. The movie is bloated with a running time a small bit over three hours total. Maybe, if they left the first twenty minutes in, then gave us the forty minute attack sequence, followed by a subsequent five minute ending to clear up our love triangle’s loose ends… why we’d have an 80 minute blockbuster!

Pearl Harbor doesn’t demonize the Japanese, but it feels rather false with their open-minded attempts to show both sides as fair minded. It gets to the point where they keep pushing the Japanese further into less of a bad light that it feels incredibly manipulative and just insulting. It seems like the producers really didn’t want to offend any potential Pacific ticket buyers so the picture bends backwards to not be insulting. The only people who could be offended by Pearl Harbor are those who enjoy good stories. Oh yeah, and war veterans too.

The cast of Pearl Harbor almost reads like another Hollywood 40s war movie where all the big stars had small roles throughout, kind of like The Longest Day for the Pepsi generation. Alec Baldwin plays General Doolittle and is his usual embarrassing self, granted he is given the worst lines in the film to say. Tom Sizemore shows up as a sergeant ready to train the men entering Pearl Harbor. He has five minutes of screen time but does manage to kill people in that short window. Dan Akroyd is in this for some reason or other, likely because Blues Brothers 3000 has yet to be green lighted. John Voight is easily the most entertaining actor to watch in the entire film. He gives a very authentic portrayal of President Roosevelt. I still find trouble believing it was Voight under the makeup.

The blueprint for Pearl Harbor is so transparent. They took the Titanic formula of setting a fictional romance against a disaster, with the first half establishing characters and our love story, and then relegating the second half to dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. It worked in Titanic (yes, I liked the film for the most part), but it doesn’t work here. Pearl Harbor is a passable film, but the mediocre acting, inept romance, square writing, and slack pacing stop it from being anything more. Fans of war epics might find more to enjoy, especially if they don’t regularly have quibbles over things like “characters” and “plot.” To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: “Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Nate’s Grade: C

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