National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

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National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Dir. Jon Turtletaub
Premiered December 13, 2007

First, an apology in order: I had to take a break from these. I got a job and a life, and also a roommate who just got out of a long period of unemployment involving lots of TV-hogging. But now I’m back.\

After Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl did unexpectedly well, The Walt Disney Company gave action maven Jerry Bruckheimer free rein to produce a long-gestating project by Disney vet Jon Turtletaub (3 Ninjas, Cool Runnings, etc.). Released in 2004, National Treasure is a family-friendly take on conspiracy thrillers and Indiana Jones knowledge quests with a patriotic twist, sending fringe historian Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) on a journey to steal the United States Declaration of Independence and use it to find buried Masonic treasure before the baddies can do the same for profit.

By the time of National Treasure’s release, America had gone wild for Dan Brown’s airport potboiler The Da Vinci Code, necessarily inviting comparisons. For my money, National Treasure did it better by not taking itself so seriously, much in the same way as Disney had done with The Three Musketeers eleven years earlier. But it’s still a wasted opportunity: the first act is terribly paced, Nicolas Cage is pointlessly restrained, and while his sidekick Riley seems to have been written in the mode of “sarcastic Ryan Gosling” (albeit long before such a thing existed), Justin Bartha underacts like a high schooler doing Hamlet. As a whole, it’s inoffensive but undercooked, and I found myself reacting much as I did to the Giro D’Italia starting in Jerusalem: with informed indifference.

Most critics felt the same, but National Treasure made a healthy enough profit to get the go-ahead for one sequel, which at the time was probably for the best and brings us back to 2007, and Cage’s third starring role of that year– yet another disappointment.

Despite improving on many of the first movie’s criticisms– Cage gets in plenty of trademark mugging, and the character of Riley is better calibrated to match Justin Bartha’s persona– National Treasure: Book of Secrets is so contrived and convoluted that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on.

The story begins with Gates’ revelation to a historical society that his great-grandfather Thomas died protecting a hidden treasure from the slaver conspirators who assassinated President Lincoln at the end of the American Civil War. That is until shadowy Southern gentleman Wilkerson (Ed Harris) reveals a long-lost page from assassin John Wilkes Booth’s diary suggesting that Thomas was actually one of those collaborators.

Desperate to clear his ancestor’s name, Gates uncovers a cipher that leads him to yet another lost treasure: a buried city of indigenous gold sought after by the Confederates and now their descendant Wilkerson, who has brought a team of mercenaries to make sure that he alone will find the treasure and reclaim glory for his family.

While the groundwork for the plot is laid out, movie curses us with the same soft reset that everyone hated in Ghostbusters 2, in which our heroes have become either morons or unaccountable jerks offscreen so they can start over just as lonely and broke as they were at the beginning of the first movie. But why? The only people hoping to profit from the first movie’s treasure were the villains, and no one at all is trying to do that this time around. Likewise, Gates and Abigail’s (Diane Kruger) breakup– which, despite not being a divorce, results in Gates being kicked out of his own house– has no real impact on the characters’ relationship, only serving on occasion to flimsily overcome some minor plot obstacles.

And boy, does that plot pile up. The plot of National Treasure had just three locations and two artifacts which, once found, always stayed with the characters. Here, MacGuffins, characters, and entire schemes flit in and out directionlessly as the characters stumble through a rollercoaster of contingencies and detours, including a minor but trailer-friendly scheme to kidnap the US President (Bruce Greenwood). Between this and some tortured digressions into “cute” romantic squabbling by both Gates and his parents (Jon Voight and Helen Mirren), the baddies disappear for extended stretches, and virtually everyone’s motivations and goals get lost.

Likewise, the movie’s hyperactive tendency to bring in even more worldly locations opens some gaping plot holes, and happily calls attention to them: first our heroes get ticketed for using a drone in Paris, but then the baddies chase them through London, causing massive damage, with no consequences. Later, the team is pursued across Washington for kidnapping the President, but then find their way to South Dakota without incident.

While National Treasure augmented the American mythos with its own quirky fable, Book of Secrets actively misrepresents it in order to accommodate its ramble of a plot. This movie seems convinced that the Confederates not only could have won the war, but always could have won. Thomas Gates stopped Lincoln’s assassins in order to end the war, despite the South having already surrendered. Queen Victoria is discovered to have wanted to help the Confederacy in order to protect access to southern cotton (no) even after the South had been starved into submission. It also thinks the Lakota were hanging around Mount Rushmore in the 16th Century. Perhaps these are nitpicks on my part, but they speak to a disrespect for history that the first movie, mediocre as it was, fought tirelessly to avoid; and a desperately lazy approach to writing that should not have been surprising from the couple who penned Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and G-Force.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Product placement for Borders, again. Everyone– everyone– has Moto Razr phones.

How Did It Do?
National Treasure: Book of Secrets grossed $457.4 million against a $130 million budget, far exceeding the original to become the 9th biggest movie of 2007. Despite this success, and a low-key sequel hook in the film’s epilogue, plans to continue the franchise have continued to stall long after interest in the series has declined. That may have to do with the poor critical reception, especially in the UK where it was assailed for implying British sympathies toward the slaveholders of the Confederacy. Ultimately, the picture earned a damp 35% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and a couple of Razzie nominations.

Next Time: The Bucket List

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I’m Not There (2007)

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I’m Not There
Dir. Todd Haynes
Premiered at Venice September 3, 2007

Right before the advent of Netflix, my mom went through this phase where she would go to Blockbuster and rent the weirdest, most niche DVDs she could find; and one of them was called Palindromes. I’ll spare you the details; look it up if you’re curious, it’s one of those movies that make you wonder in retrospect if you didn’t just imagine it while suffering from the flu; the relevant point is the main character in that movie is played by many different actors. So when I heard about a new film about Bob Dylan that did the same thing, I assumed that it was being helmed by the director of Palindromes, Todd Solondz, and thought nothing more of it until college.

Some five or six years later, I was taking a class at SF State that might as well have been called Music Theory Masturbation for People Who Couldn’t Get Real Classes Because of Austerity Cuts and Massive Embezzlement, and one of the movies we saw was I’m Not There. I was sick the first day of the showing, so I only saw what I thought was the second half, and it was weird. Really weird. But not necessarily bad. It certainly left an impression. And of course, I found out the director was a different Todd, Todd Haynes, whose film Velvet Goldmine I saw years later still in film school and absolutely loved.

Making Velvet Goldmine, Haynes was unable to get the rights to David Bowie’s life story (legal difficulties with popular musicians is something of a tradition for the filmmaker), and so told a fictionalized history of ‘70s glam rock through symbolic figures. I’m Not There had no such legal trouble with its subject, Bob Dylan, and still took the same route– going even further. The film is a rapid-fire anthology of stories about characters embodying different aspects or periods of Dylan’s life, and even individually they are out of order, and seemingly only half complete.

Even if the vignettes are not chronological, they do follow a sort of chronological order, beginning and ending in roughly the same order, each with a distinct cinematic and musical style:

  • 19th Century French poet Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), being questioned about the nature of fatalism in a Cold-War era interrogation room that may or may not be purgatory. Rimbaud, as well as the film’s narrator (Kris Kristofferson) serve as something of a greek chorus to the rest of the film.

  • An 11-year-old black troubadour calling himself “Woody Guthrie” (Marcus Carl Franklin) who rides the rails and sings for the union cause despite living in 1959, until one of his many hosts (Kim Roberts) tells him to sing about his own times. The character is a reference to Dylan’s early fixation with the real Woody Guthrie, as well as his tendency to tell tall tales about his origins– though his portrayal as a poor black child may owe more to Steve Martin.

  • Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a protest singer who abandons his craft after publicly comparing himself to Lee Harvey Oswald, and years later becomes an evangelical pastor and gospel musician. His story is told through the guise of a PBS-style documentary interviewing his friends and colleagues, such as Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore), based on Dylan’s real-life friend and rival Joan Baez.

  • Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), a young actor who plays Rollins in a 1965 film, through which he meets and marries French painter Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and becomes an eventual darling of the New Hollywood. The rise and fall of their relationship coincides with and parallels the American war in Vietnam.

  • Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) most closely parallels Dylan’s public image, especially as depicted in the 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back. Quinn betrays the folk scene by adopting the electric guitar, futzes around England and America alike, goes to groovy parties, feuds with standoffish British journalist Keenan Jones (Bruce Greenwood), and generally resents his supposed position as standard-bearer of America’s youth.

  • Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), having escaped his supposed execution at the hands of lawman Pat Garrett (also Bruce Greenwood) and settled into an anonymous existence in the small town of Riddle, Missouri. Around the time of World War I, Riddle is set to be destroyed by a newfangled public highway, and Garrett is behind it. This segment was inspired by Dylan’s soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Like any anthology film, certain of these stories and characters will be stronger than others. Back in 2007, most were drawn to Jude Quinn, who is the most readily familiar incarnation of Mr. Dylan as popular culture has chosen to remember him, and it got Cate Blanchett and Oscar nomination. Minnie loved Robbie Clark, despite the character’s tenuous connection to Dylan’s body of work, but that’s mostly a testament to Ledger, whose untimely death cost the world a lifetime of great performances. In what I suspect may be an unpopular opinion, I was personally enthralled with Billy the Kid, not least because I’m actually most familiar with Bob Dylan’s quasi-western 1970s output due to my father’s incessant playing of records like Blood on the Tracks and his work with The Band.

Roger Ebert in his review of this film complained that the movie doesn’t give any further insight into Dylan as a person. I think it does– it’s just deeply cynical. Or perhaps Zen. I’m Not There tells the story of a creative genius who can only express that genius through various personas, Peter Sellers-like.

Yet the director doesn’t judge. With Velvet Goldmine, Haynes seemed to view the abandonment of glam rock as a betrayal of a way of life and thinking in favor of a hollow corporate musical environment. Nearly a decade later, a firmly middle-aged Haynes openly mocks such reactionary fandom, such as that which rejected Dylan’s rock stylings as a betrayal of their values. I’m Not There is all about mortality, hence the involvement of Rimbaud. Yet the film’s fatalism is a hopeful one, one which gives nostalgia its due but recognizes the need and indeed the endless possibilities of change.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The narrator calls Vietnam “the longest war in television history.” No longer.

How Did It Do?
I’m Not There flopped, grossing just $11.7 million against a $20 million budget, but was buoyed by a 77% fresh rating on RT to net an Oscar nomination for Cate Blanchett (not to be too cynical, but Oscar voters love gender-bending casting just enough to overlook financial failure).

Bob Dylan himself liked the movie quite a bit, praising Haynes’ boldness and willingness to discard factuality in favor of more imaginative storytelling. And although Haynes has gone on to play very well with critics, this is one experiment he has shown no interest in repeating.

Next Time: Gone Baby Gone