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"That's a nice-a donut."

Thursday, June 30, 2005


Kwaidan

Kwaidan is a classic Japanese anthology from director Masaki Kobayashi of four short horror/suspense stories. From the very beginning, strange ink formations fill the screen over the opening credits, portending the supernatural element. The four parts vary in quality to some extent, and each has a surprise ending.

The first tale, The Black Hair, is a sobering story of a selfish man who leaves his wife in poverty to pursue an opportunity for a better life in a post. He marries the daughter of a much more noble family in "the thoughtlessness of youth and the experience of desire", the narrator comments. Soon the man realizes that he still loves his first wife and longs for his old way of life. She was much more loving and less selfish, and he especially liked her beautiful, luscious black hair. He regretted what he did and begins to hate himself for it. Eventually he returns to his old town to look for the woman he still loves, to make amends. Soon he gets a horrifying surprise.

The second tale, The Woman of the Snow, is a seemingly innocuous story that begins with an old man and his young apprentice who go to a nearby forest everyday (to get wood to sell). One day they get trapped in a bad snowstorm on their way home and the young man awakens after being knocked out. He is surrounded by mysterious symbols lit up in the dark sky and wonders over to a hut, where he finds the old man apparently dead (frozen and "as if his blood were all gone") and an enchanting woman who appears and says that she will kill him if he ever tells anyone about this night. Time passes and the young man has married a nice wife and has three children. Everyone is very happy, and the other villagers consider the wife to be a wonder and remark that she looks as if she hasn't aged. Eventually, a dark realization comes over the man and he forgets his vow of silence about the fateful night in the snow.

The third (and longest) part is Hoichi, the Earless. This mystical segment begins a long time ago, as the Genji and Heiti clans fought a great sea battle. There are burning ships and death all around, and ever since then the sea and the shores have seemed to be haunted. Back in the present, we meet a blind man named Hoichi at a religious temple. He is visited one day by a warrior who asks him to tell the story of the legendary sea battle to a group of warriors and noblemen. He performs for them, mostly with singing and his biwa, a string instrument. What he didn't realize is that he was being used to satisfy the needs of the undead and may be in grave danger.

The fourth tale, In a Cup of Tea, we learn one story of why some written works are never finished. A nobleman looks into his cup of tea before taking a sip and is astonished to see the reflection of another, younger man's face in the tea. This of course freaks him out so he dumps it and refills his cup. This happens again, but he finally drinks it on the third cup. Soon after this, a mysterious intruder is seen lurking around the castle. The man who drank the tea has become paranoid, suspicious, and leery and begins to go crazy...

Kwaidan is slow moving at times, especially during the third act that drags along some. Some of the plotlines can be a little confusing at times too, though I imagine that part might have to do with cultural differences in Japan. But the stories are all very intriguing and the payoffs are generally quite good. The common thread of the supernatural runs throughout the movie. Even the seemingly normal seems mysterious in this world. See, sometimes what is there isn't really there and sometimes what isn't there really is. And sometimes everything is exactly as it seems, even when it seems that it's not. Got that?

Things are helped along, in part, by an unusual choice of backgrounds for many of the scenes. The skies are obviously fake in some parts, with some still portraits and props similar to those that might be used in live theater. The backgrounds make it feel as if the stories clearly come from someone's imagination and are sometimes dreamlike in their abstractness. The acting is very solid across the board. My favorite of the four parts is The Woman of the Snow. All-in-all, Kwaidan is very rewarding film if you devote yourself to it and stick with it.

The Verdict: B+.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005


Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent was one of director Alfred Hitchcock's very first American-made films. The Americanized Hitchcock is quite evident in some scenes in the movie, no thanks in part to the (necessary) disease known as the Hollywood studio. But I digress; this came out the same year as his first and only film to win the Academy Award for best picture, Rebecca. Foreign Correspondent was also nominated for best picture, as well as in five other categories, although it took home no statues.

The year is 1939, and Europe is one the eve of a massive world war against the Germans. A newspaper in New York is dissatisfied with uninteresting news reports from its foreign correspondent in Europe, so a young reporter named Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is volunteered to go and begin reporting on the volatile situation. He is asked to use a different name so he will be better respected, so he becomes Huntley Haverstock. Right from the beginning Huntley is reporting about a peace organization headed by Mr. Fisher. At the same time, he meets a statesman named Van Meer who is involved with negotiating a treaty between a couple countries. While Huntley tries to interview him, Van Meer is shot. Huntley chases after the assassin and we soon have a good old game of cat-and-mouse. Amidst his investigation, Huntley learns that Fisher may not be who he seems, and also becomes involved with Fisher's daughter.

McCrea is very likeable in the lead. He is quick witted and suave, and just seems like he's having a good time. While watching the movie, I wondered why I had never really heard of McCrea before; he seemed like an actor who could have been a big star. As it turns out, he was a star but mostly in Westerns. Huntley may have been an atypical role for him, but even so I thought of George Clooney while watching him work.

There are a couple action scenes in the movie that seem way ahead of their time. One is what must be one of cinema's first realistic car chases and another is an impressive plane crash. A scene in a windmill is very suspenseful, are foreshadows similar camera work and style that Hitchcock later used in classics like Notorious. There is a generally "dark" tone near the film's payoff, which is very reminiscent in style to many Hollywood movies post-1980 or so. (Now, whether that is a good thing or not, I'll leave to you to decide.) There is also the typical celluloid love story, which veers from them being angry one minute to in love the next.

The movie has a relatively complex and deliberate story; it requires very careful attention to all details, which can get tiring. It also doesn't build up any innate dislike or disdain for Fisher as it should. But in the end, you leave filling rather satisfied. This isn't Hitchcock's best, but it is good for what it is.

The Verdict: B.

Monday, June 27, 2005


Land of the Dead

After a 20-year absence George A. Romero, the renowned father of the modern-day zombie film, returns to his roots with Land of the Dead. In this land, humans are now an insubstantial minority compared to the vast army of the undead. Here we are told the tale of one city that has managed to separate itself from the zombie threat, and where Romero dares suggest that living, breathing people are pretty much zombies too.

From the very beginning, the ominous opening credits forebode a nightmarish but darn fun movie about to follow. And right away we learn that the zombies are evolving. A quarter of the lifeless beings stand in a gazebo trying to play musical instruments (because they were likely doing the same thing when they were alive), and nearby a big menacing zombie (the Big Daddy, played by Eugene Clark) comes out of a gas station at the sound of a car and picks up the gas nozzle. Big Daddy shows further signs of intelligence, by learning new things like picking up a gun, and communicating with his fellow zombies. For Romero, this is a natural progression that began with his groundbreaking original, Night of the Living Dead. In that movie, the zombies were all mindless and pretty much just there to eat people. In his Dawn of the Dead, they showed a memory of sorts by returning to what was familiar. In Day of the Dead, they showed the ability to relearn previous things. Now, they are learning new things as well.

The city in Land of the Dead (which is supposed to be Pittsburgh, I think) is run by a ruthless businessman named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) who cares more about his own fortunes than of the helpless people in the prison-like city below. The city is surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth side by a fence with a strong electrical current running through it. He owns a tall building in the middle of the city, Fiddler on the Green, where very wealthy people are able to buy their way into a life of security and luxury. These people are completely oblivious to the madness outside their building. There is even a TV commercial seen inside the building selling the virtues and desirability of being there!

Meanwhile, back inside the regular part of the city is a group of people who sort of serve as Kaufman's hired goons who are in charge of killing zombies on the outside and taking out the "garbage." Riley (Simon Baker) and Charlie (Robert Joy) are a pair of likeable fellows with dreams of hightailing it to Canada to escape this made regime. Cholo (John Leguizamo) is a bit more of a rogue, and when he gets angry with Kaufman he steals a valuable and powerful tank and threatens to destroy the city if he doesn't get paid. Kaufman then hires Riley and Charlie to get his tank back (the Dead Reckoning), and along the way they meet a down-on-her-luck woman (Asia Argento) and meet up with a ton of zombies - from the hilarious to the frightening.

The movie is very enjoyable and a lot of fun. There are a couple gruesome scenes of a group of zombies eating people (I guess you can't really call it cannibalism at this point), so the movie is definitely not for everyone. As you might expect, there is much gore - a lot of blood and guts, but it was not too over-the-top, the amount seemed just right. Most of the characters are great too. Simon Baker does a fine job in the lead role and Robert Joy gives the sidekick a nice, likeable, generally well-done personality that is easy to care about. Asia Argento, the daughter of the Italian horror master Dario Argento, also gives a much better acting performance than I expected by playing helpless, kick ass, friendly, and concerned as the scene dictated. She is reminiscent of Zooey Deschanel's characters in Almost Famous and Elf. Leguizamo is one of the weak points - his character is the stereotypical jerk, the loose cannon, described at one point as a "terrorist" but by the end he tries to redeem his selfish actions. The real bad guy is Hopper, who is decent, but seems held back and doesn't give what is he capable of. I wanted to see more of Frank from Blue Velvet. Instead I ended up hoping that he got eaten.

The movie has a few small plot issues that don't jive if you think about it too hard, but let's be realistic - this is a zombie film. Romero also goes a little too far with giving some of the zombie's intelligence. There is an unresolved ending; but in this case it is definitely a good thing. Though it may point to another sequel, sometimes it is better to imagine the fates of the characters on your own than to have their ending handfed to you.

In the end, Land of the Dead is a fine addition to Romero's zombie quadrilogy. It is right up there with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and ahead of Day of the Dead.

The Verdict: B+.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


The XYZ Murders (aka Crimewave)

I think I can honestly say that I have never been more disappointed in a movie than I was with Crimewave. You are almost certainly in the majority if you were to say that you've never even heard of the movie. Well, neither had I until recently. That is, until I discovered that this unknown movie was created by the great Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan, as co-writers) and Sam Raimi (of Evil Dead and Spider-man fame, as the director and also a co-writer) and co-starred funnyman and multitalent Bruce Campbell. The movie is billed a slapstick satire on the crime and hitman genre. The tagline is "Extermination is not just a business. It's a way of life."

The film begins with a guy in prison (no-name actor Reed Birney) who is about to be put to death via the electric chair. He claims he is innocent but that doesn't really matter; most of the movie is a flashback explaining why he's there. Although by the end, we still don't actually learn why he is there. Instead we follow this loser who has a "How to Talk to Girls" book with him and a couple very freaky and creepy hitmen exterminators. Ostensibly the basic plot of the movie is that an owner of a security system company hires these exterminators to kill his partner. They do that, but also go after the guy who hired them, the loser, a couple women, and a few other people who get in the way.

This is definitely slapstick - nothing is serious, everything is outrageous, and pretty much everything is pointless too. I suppose they are supposed to be cartoonish, but the hitmen are so weird and freaky that it starts to grate on the nerves. The movie is not funny and the only suspense was whether or not it could actually get any worse (it does). There are few redeeming qualities about Crimewave (or The XYZ Murders or Broken Hearts and Noses ...whatever the heck it is called). One of the only bright spots is when Bruce Campbell is on the screen in a small supporting role as a heel. Frances McDormand (the great actress and husband of Joel) is also credited but is barely noticeably in a non-speaking part. The movie does not appear to have aged well, and yet it actually seems like it was already aged upon its release. Nevertheless, it is so odd that I am surprised that it has not become more of a cult classic. I recommend this only as a curiosity for fans of the filmmakers.

The Verdict: D.

Monday, June 20, 2005


Batman Begins

In Batman Begins, acclaimed director Christopher Nolan has tried to infuse new life into a once blockbuster movie series that has been lying dead for eight years since the dud that was Batman and Robin. Forget Jack Nicholson's Joker, or DeVito's Penguin, or Jim Carrey, Ahnuld, or the bat nipples... this one starts the classic DC Comics series all over again. Bruce Wayne (played as an adult by Christian Bale) is a young boy from an obscenely rich family. His parents are shot dead in a dark alley and Bruce is then raised and cared for by Alfred the butler (Michael Caine). He has much guilt over their deaths and eventually ends up in a prison somewhere in Asia, before being trained by Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and a man named Ducard (Liam Neeson) to become part of a team of vigilantes who seek justice against criminals like the one who killed his folks. He ends up returning home and decides to fix Gotham City, which has become overridden by corruption and crime. To do this, he of course he needs a symbol, and a costume to hide his identity. Soon enough, he must battle the forces of a vicious crime lord, Ra's Al Ghul, and a poisonous-spray wielding character named the Scarecrow in order to save the city.

Bale is fine in the lead role, though I actually preferred him as Bruce Wayne than in the costumed role of Batman. The supporting players are where the casting really shines though. I especially liked Cillian Murphy (he played the lead in the zombie pic 28 Days Later) as the slimy Dr. Crane. I don't know whether this says that Cillian is a great actor with range for a wide array of parts, or whether he is simply fantastic at playing villainous scoundrels, but without a doubt he needs to start being on more short lists. Gary Oldman also gives a good, solid performance as young police lieutenant Jim Gordan, in fact I didn't even realize it was Oldman until the end credits - though certainly the bushy moustache helps to disguise him. There are plenty of other recognizable faces including Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman and Tom Wilkinson.

The cityscapes and art and set direction of the new Gotham City are a delight. Nolan's Gotham is just like a real city in the modern world, but has just a hint of fairy tale to it that tells you that it is most definitely from the comic world. I liked the design of a train line that went through the city and becomes a focal point to the story. The Wayne mansion is swell looking; even better is the "origin" sequence that, among other things, details how Wayne built his secret cave. Well-placed flashbacks to Wayne's childhood (including a scene with bats and a cave) help bridge the gap to the present.

Not everything is peaches and cream though. My chief complaint is the overlong sequence in the first half that establishes Wayne as a sort of vigilante. More specifically are the scenes in the mountains of Asia and training with the mysterious Ducard - I couldn't wait for these limp, boring scenes to end so that we could get to the meat of the story. It seemed as if Nolan was trying to explain too much about the origins of the caped crusader. In general, it is when the movie diverged from the main story that it was weakened. Rutger Hauer as the evil CEO about to liquidate Bruces's stake in the company founded by his father? This cliche reminded me of a Richie Rich plot. And the obligatory love interest is a total waste and more or less a throwaway to the pulse of the movie. To top things off, the "Batmobile" (though I don't believe it is actually referred to that in the movie) is a real disappointment. It only fits in with a Hummers and oversized SUVs world of masculine-compensation, and does not recall the Batman mythos at all.

For the most part, these complaints are nitpicks. They are more along the lines of what I would get rid of, or focus less on, if I were making it. But then again, I'm not Chris Nolan and I'm fairly sure that the film wouldn't have turned out as well. This is an enjoyable movie. It is a nice departure from most of the brainless action films that Hollywood continues to throw at us. I can't commit to saying that I would like to see more sequels - because if there is anything that the movie industry needs fewer of it is remakes and sequels - but I can say that I will most likely be in line for tickets when it happens.

The Verdict: B+.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


The Machinist

In director Brad Anderson's dark film The Machinist, Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) is a blue collar worker who has not slept in a year. This isn't just a case of a poor night's rest where you feel lethargic the rest of the day and might not have a very fun day - this is an entire year. Trevor is beginning to doubt his own sanity. The movie opens with him tossing a body into the sea. Is it just a dream? Or does he have something to hide? Soon he begins finding cryptic messages in his apartment featuring a game of hangman, and a coworker gets hurt because Trevor was distracted by a strange man who has been following him. Is he seeing things? Or is it really everyone else in his life - including his jerk supervisor at work - who are the crazy ones? The only places he finds comfort are with his prostitute/sort-of-a-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who he regularly sees, and at a diner with a waitress who seems to remind him of his mother.

Anderson, whose last directorial effort was the very good spookfest Session 9, again develops a strong sense of atmosphere and tension (not to mention confusion) in The Machinist. You never know what is going to happen next: will he continue the plodding story or will the growing unease boil over and come to the forefront. The movie may not have any big budget action sequences or CGI razzle-dazzle, but the intriguing story should keep your attention throughout. One common complaint that I recall reading about the film upon its theatrical release was that Bale's extreme weight loss is a distraction and that there isn't much else to the film. As to the second point your mileage may vary, but I really didn't find the weight issue to be anything other than an important factor in showing the insomnia. Bale inhabits his role with more than just his physical transformation, but reveals an inner turmoil that is wrenching and fascinating at the same time. In fact, most all of the actors in the movie are just right for their parts.

One way the movie could have been improved is by explicitly showing more of Trevor's sleeplessness. Though plenty of shots are shown (he is about to nod off but is startled by a noise, or he cleans the kitchen floor with a toothbrush in the middle of the night) that hint at his chronic insomnia, very few actually show him in bed trying to fall asleep. The viewer is left wondering if he actually wants to break his curse since he doesn't seem to be trying very hard. I appreciated that a movie with a rather complex story didn't seem to have any glaring plot holes or contrivances. Yet, while the ending is solid and fairly thrilling, it feels like a letdown given such a build up. I wanted to like this film a lot more than I did. This is a good movie that may be enhanced with repeated viewing, but I was ultimately left feeling unfulfilled.

The Verdict: B.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Super Troopers

From the wacky minds of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe comes Super Troopers, a funny but unspectacular farce about the hijinks of a small state police highway patrol unit in Vermont. The five or six officers are there not to bring peace or justice to their community, or even to bring home a regular paycheck, but seem to be working mainly just to have fun. They play pranks on each other, play games with motorists that they pull over, love to drink syrup, hit on rival police officers, avoid getting suspended, and generally screw around.

The main plot of the movie reminds me (in an off-hand sort of way) of two other comedies, one a classic and one not so much: Animal House and Police Academy 3: Back in Training. There are possible budget cuts that have put the inept department at risk. They are now competing with the local police department to crack open a drug smuggling problem in the area, which may possibly be linked to a recent murder. So the super troopers try to get their acts together before they find themselves out of a job. Alas, they're having just a little too much fun...

Though Super Troopers isn't so much a satire as Broken Lizard's next (and somewhat better) effort, Club Dread, they are trying to fire on all cylinders with the jokes, gags, and zingers. With some of the them they are definitely firing blanks (such as a scene involving the pretend sodomy of a fake bear) but some of them are quite funny. A few of the lowbrow antics are so outrageous that it almost feels like "Candid Camera: The Movie (State Police Edition)", especially a scene where one of the troopers randomly says "Meow" while talking to a driver that has been pulled over. The actors all do a credible job too of playing things for laughs and playing it straight when needed - often both at the same time. Brian Cox is especially good as the police captain of the state troopers. His character is just as bawdy and cavalier as the other officers, but since he is in a position of power he needs to control himself, which makes things all the more funny when he goes on a drunken rampage with the gang.

I imagine that the movie - like many comedies - is pretty much hit or miss for most people. Some people will likely despise the film, thinking that it is quite stupid and pointless. Others will watch it over and over again. This reviewer is somewhat in between. There are plenty of shenanigans, but for the most part they are "cheeky and fun." Just don't go in expecting a complex story or a tight script and you're liable to enjoy it.

The Verdict: B-.

Monday, June 13, 2005


Daughter From Danang

Near the end of the long and arduous war in Vietnam in 1975, after many controversial missteps and shattered public confidence, the United States airlifted more than 2,000 children out of the country to be adopted in the States. These children weren't just orphans that needed a home (though some of them were). No, most of them had parents who loved them very much. Their crime? Being mixed Vietnamese and American babies - many with fathers from the U.S. military.

Daughter From Danang is a documentary from the PBS American Experience series that chronicles the journey home by one of these children to meet her mother and family that had to give her up over 20 years before. Heidi (her name was Americanized) was just a young girl when she was brought over in "Operation Babylift" and was adopted into a family in South Carolina, before later moving to Tennessee. This was a whole other planet compared to the poverty-stricken, war-torn life in Vietnam. It took some time before she could speak English well, and her and her adopted mother even tried to hide her origins. But she adjusted to her new life and even got married and has two kids of her own. For years she had been trying to reunite with her biological mother, and finally through a twist of fate she was able to.

For the second half of the movie we travel with Heidi to Vietnam for a weeklong reunion with her original family. Before long she realizes that the trip was a bit more than she bargained for. It is clear that she was expecting a happy, nostalgic vacation. Instead, there is major culture shock. In Vietnamese culture it is expected that you will provide and care for your family when you are able to. Her mother, Mai Thi, and her brother and sister expect that she will be able to give them money - they aren't necessarily being selfish or greedy, that's just the way it is for them. This leads to a very bittersweet and emotional ending.

The film crosses back and forth between being very enlightening, very frustrating, and very sad. The filmmaker's use old footage from the 1960s and 70s as a background to the backstories that are told about Heidi and Mai Thi. It is a nice touch, but I was slightly confused at first as to whether it was random footage or whether it was actually video of this very family. And it isn't really a fault of the film, but eventually you will find Heidi to be quite frustrating and bothersome. Overall, the story itself is extremely interesting and entertaining. In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing more babylift stories to see if the results are any different.

The Verdict: B.

Friday, June 10, 2005


Empire of the Sun

In one of director Steven Spielbergs lesser-regarded films, Empire of the Sun, a young Christian Bale (of the upcoming Batman Begins) stars as Jaime (or Jim), a British boy growing up with his well-to-do family in Shanghai, China at the onset of World War II. Jim is rather spoiled (a child of great "luck" and privilege), but is good-natured, inquisitive (sometimes too much), and has a love for military aviation. China has been home to many British expatriates since the 19th Century, but Japanese forces have invaded the country and the Brits are gradually being forced out of their homes. Jim gets lost in a crowd from his mother and father and eventually makes his way home to find that it has been impounded by the imperial Japanese emperor. Hungry and losing hope, Jim eventually comes across Frank and Basie (a phenomenal performance by John Malkovich) who take him under their wing. Soon enough, they all end up at an internment camp composed mostly of British and American civilians. We spend much of the rest of the film here and Jim, without his parents, becomes sort of a de facto life of the camp. He cares for many of the adults, barters with many of them to be sure that everyone has what they need, becomes friends with many, and provides hope when there is almost none.

Spielberg does a good job of telling an interesting story that, while obviously having some moments that tug on the heart strings, does not succumb to blatant or insincere emotionalism - a criticism of some of the director's work. This is a multi-layered story with metaphors, exaggerations, parallel themes, and is even dreamlike. In fact, maybe nothing is what it seems. Could some of this just be the fuzzy memory of a boy, or are these real, traumatic events which must be dealt with in a mature way?

Some of the movie's shots are beautiful and throughout the picture, the acting is first-rate. I never would have guessed that this was Bale's first real acting role; he is onscreen nearly the entire movie and does a marvelous job playing the many emotions that are required of Jim. Music is very important to the movie as well, in particularly an operatic tune that Jim sings a couple times. Without having a clue as to what the words actually mean (it's not in English), I can say that the song (Suo Gan) just seems to fit perfectly. It is solemn, yet uplifting; haunting, but thoughtful; and helps to evoke the naivety and innocence (lost) of childhood.

There are some problems with Empire of the Sun that turn it from being a potentially great movie into simply a good movie. It works on a deeper level, but is explicit about nothing - it requires a very watchful eye to notice the many parallels and similarities between, say, events at the prison camp and Jim's memories of events prior to that. (I think the subtlety of this is why the movie did not receive more critical acclaim upon its release.) Also, I didn't quite see the point of focusing so much on a married couple (including Miranda Richardson) that helped to care for Jim in the camp - some of that could have been cut out to help shorten the movie from its more than 150 minute runtime. Even more so, Frank (Joe Pantoliano) spends much of the film being jealous of and generally disliking Jim. But why? After all, Frank is the one that took Jim in off the street to begin with.

These gripes, however, do little to take away from the point that Empire of the Sun is a fine accomplishment. It is easily overlooked; after all Spielberg has made a career of big, audience-pleasing movies. This is just a little experiment in comparison to many of his hits.

The Verdict: B.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


National Treasure

It's quite easy to imagine that many potential movies are pitched to studios by way of relating them to established, hit movies. It is a proven formula, for better or worse. For instance, a young screenwriter may try to sell his can't-miss script about a futuristic dreamlike-world about a group of misfit high school students who band together to fight a colony of deadly creatures by hiring a rebel smuggler and his pet wookiee, all while trying to get laid by saying: "It's The American Pie Breakfast Club meets Star Wars to fight Aliens in The Matrix!" What producer wouldn't buy that in a second? Similarly, I imagine that the pitch for National Treasure must have gone something like this: "It's Indiana Jones meets Ocean's 11 and The Mummy at The Rock!" Not too mention a dash here and a pinch there of seemingly every action-adventure film in recent memory - particularly those in the Jerry Bruckheimer library.

Nicolas Cage is Benjamin Franklin Gates, a lifelong treasure hunter... well, more like treasure protector. For generations his family has been passing on a clue that could lead to a mythical treasure that may (or may not) have been hidden by the country's founding fathers around the time of the American Revolution. Ben and his colleagues, Shaw and Riley, discover one of the secrets but internal strife leads Shaw to attack them and vow to steal the Declaration of Independence (since a newfound clue points to a map on the back of the historic text). Ben and Riley (Justin Bartha, playing the role of the quirky tech-genius) must act to stop him, while at the same time, trying to find the treasure themselves. Along the way they team up with pretty scientist Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) from the National Archives and end up on an adventure that takes them from D.C. to Philadelphia to New York, where we stop to check out several historic sites. Oh yeah - we can't forget Ben's father (Jon Voight), who of course gave up on the dream of finding the treasure long ago and now thinks that the whole story is a fairy tale.

Other than the very cliched and fairly predictable story, some of the key plot points are quite absurd. Shaw becoming the necessary "bad guy" is sudden and forced, and the theft of the declaration is among the more unbelievable things I've ever seen on film. Compare that to the big heist from Ocean's 11 which, though still unbelievable, is done so well that you barely bat an eyelash. Also, Harvey Keitel as an FBI agent is just around to cash a paycheck and is pretty much wasted. For that matter, most of the acting is rather pedestrian, including Cage who has been much better before.

Director John Turtletaub and Bruckheimer have fashioned a movie from parts of scores of other films. There is not a single original idea here. The editing is straight out of the MTV playbook. And yet, this mindless film is rather fun. National Treasure has witty banter, chase scenes, obligatory romance, misunderstandings, suspense and intrigue, and an audience-friendly ending. It is a decent way to escape for two hours, but I'm not sure I'd want to do it again. After all, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ocean's 11, and even The Rock all have elements of the same story and they are all better films.

The Verdict: C+.

Monday, June 06, 2005


50 First Dates

50 First Dates is a fairly enjoyable, though rather forgettable film in the Adam Sandler library. Sandler stars as Henry, a man living the high life as a young bachelor living in Hawaii. One day he hits it off with Lucy (Drew Barrymore) at a restaurant. He is smitten with her and returns to see her the next day. Unfortunately there is a problem of sorts... she was in an accident a year before and has no ability to create new memories ever since then. To keep her from being shell-shocked, Lucy's father and brother (a 'roid-addled Sean Astin) do things to make her think that every single day is the same day. Henry really likes Lucy though, so every day he plays the game all over again of being friendly, flirting, and trying to win her over. The relationship isn't going anywhere, so Henry must eventually make a choice about whether it is worth pursuing.

I much prefer Sandler when he is more contained and shows more self-restraint in films like this and The Wedding Singer. His love-it or hate-it, out-of-control, attention deficit disorder shtick in comedies like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and The Waterboy is most definitely not my taste. In 50 First Dates he does virtually none of his trademark bits (that is saved for Rob Schneider, who is alternately funny and annoying as the mentally deficient best friend, and another character with amnesia who is quite funny with a running gag) and plays it straight as a more down-to-earth man just looking to win over the girl he fell for. Instead of trying to create laughs himself, he is effective at being the likeable protagonist and guiding us along so that we still know when to laugh. I was reminded somewhat of classic Steve Martin in films such as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

With a story like this, the film is sure to have some plot holes (and it does) if you stop for a moment to think about it. While the ruse of making Lucy think that every day is the same day is somewhat funny and perhaps important to later development of the story, it brings with it a lot of questions. For instance, at one point her brother is shown putting a few drops back into a shampoo bottle for the next day. But what about so many other things in the world that you would think that she would eventually notice like her hair growing, and grass outside growing, or news and current events. Also, the fact that Henry works as a zoologist (or marine biologist or whatever he is) at an outdoor aquarium is seemingly used solely for laughs and is not very believable. The walrus makes a great supporting character, and a penguin is also effective. Other than that, I'm not sure that he even goes to work most days.

Still, 50 First Dates is supposed to be a simple movie and it is best if you don't think too much about it. Sandler and Barrymore - who also worked together for The Wedding Singer - make a good pairing. Personally, I would prefer it if Sandler only makes movies with her. Or at a minimum, shies away from the more childish scripts that he tends to go for. This is a solid film, with some good laughs, and certainly worth spending 90 minutes or so with.

The Verdict: B-.

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