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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Bratz (2007)

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Bratz
Dir. Sean McNamara
Premiered August 3, 2007

In one scene in Bratz, a gawky nerd tells terrible jokes onstage. Nobody laughs. The hostess comes on and says “that was hilarious.” In a way she’s right. The whole movie is kind of like that.

Bratz™ dolls were a rare thing in American history; not only did everyone hate them, but everyone hated them for the same reasons. Bratz™ dolls epitomized the worst aspects of a D-list celebrity culture that venerated greed, vanity, lust, and humiliation as a strategy to get attention, and which reached its apex in 2007 before rapidly receding back into the supermarket tabloids with the DUI conviction of Paris Hilton and subsequent California laws that made life much more difficult for the paparazzi.

Bratz the movie has basically nothing to do with that, but it’s still horrible in a normal, cinematic way, which kind of makes it a perfect adaptation. Its pedigree, or lack thereof, is staggering; it was directed by Sean McNamara, whose filmography is filled with direct-to-video schlock, such as three sequels to Baby Geniuses which were filmed almost entirely via green-screen but still all feature Jon Voight. Among the producers was former Marvel chief Avi Arad. Screenwriter Susan Estelle Jansen Corbett had never written a screenplay for a theatrical film before, and hasn’t since. I don’t believe this film was ever intended for theaters. When I told people that I was going to review it, they didn’t believe it existed.

I’ve read that this was supposed to be the first in a series of Bratz films, a prospect that was ruined by financial and legal troubles. I don’t buy it. Frankly, I’m not convinced this was ever meant to be shown in theaters, because the level of effort put into this film suggests that it was only made to launder money, or some similar purpose, but certainly never to be seen. The opening credits are in Comic Sans. The closing credits are in Comic Sans.

The plot, as if any of this matters, is thus: four stereotypes begin high school as best friends: Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos), a Mexican-American with a stereotypical Mexican “Bubby” (because Jews, Mexicans, whatever) and a live-in mariachi band; Jade (Janel Parrish), an Asian-American overachiever and math whiz with an overbearing immigrant mother; Cloe (Skyler Shaye), a soccer-loving blonde airhead who squeaks like Jayne Mansfield in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?; and Sasha (Logan Browning), who is black and written with utmost respect.

But the high school experience ends up tearing them apart as they are relegated in to a caste system of cliques that is mandated– mandated– by resident billionaire mean girl Meredith Baxter Dimly (Chelsea Kane, and no, I don’t know why she’s named after Meredith Baxter) and her dictatorship-obsessed father, the school principal (Jon Voight). After getting involved in an accidental food-fight in which traditionally messy foods spontaneously appear, the four remember being BFFs™ and decide to teach Meredith about Brattitude™, first at her MTV My Super Sweet Sixteen™ party, then at the school talent show.

There is so much wrong with this movie that it can’t fully be described. Almost every second is full of music that’s either public domain or transparently generic ripoffs of popular music…from four years earlier (including not-at-all-flamed-out superproducer Scott Storch!). Characters own flip-phones with HD video. The talent show ending is ridiculously choreographed and leads Sasha’s divorced parents to get back together. There’s a minute-long scene that plays like an Oscar reel, in which Cloe’s mother seems dangerously ill, and it’s never brought up again. There’s an ongoing subplot wherein a deaf jock decides to become a DJ. The moral of the story is that that teenagers shouldn’t abide by the mandatory segregation policies implemented by mean girls and their administration cronies– something we can all relate to.

This is the live-action Foodfight. This is the girly, juvenile Battlefield Earth. It’s not even so bad it’s good; it’s so bad that its very existence will amuse you to the point of giggling psychosis.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
It’s a movie based on the Bratz™ dolls.

Additional Notes

  • It may be the fact that I got hammered in order to get through this, but I swear one of the extras was Chelsea Peretti.

  • Flip-phones have HD video quality in this movie.

  • The Sweet 16 dance scene totally wasn’t lifted from Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl.

  • This fucking song.

How Did It Do?
Bratz got a 9% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, with the few positive reviews exclaiming that it had a message: not what the message was or whether it was communicated effectively, or whether a movie should be judged by its message, just that it had one. It also made $26 million against a $20 million budget, so it definitely made some money disappear. There was a tie-in video game that was universally panned. Bratz™ dolls, I’m surprised to discover, have never totally gone away, but most of them were repainted and repurposed under the Monster High™ label. Don’t ask.

Next Time: Hot Rod

Transformers (2007)

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Transformers
Dir. Michael Bay
Premiered June 12, 2007

Nostalgia is a strange mistress.

It comes in two waves: first, the 20-year cycle, nostalgia for childhood that overcomes people when they become adults; then the 50-year cycle, nostalgia for a more distant past that’s perceived to have been more elegant. The 20-year cycle is the most frustrating. Lindsay Ellis once recalled having to take part in a Grease-themed pep rally in elementary school, saying “it seems like in the seventies, they really missed the fifties. But I remember in the late nineties there being this big resurgence of us missing the seventies missing the fifties,” both decades neither she nor her preadolescent classmates had ever lived through.

The 2000s were a decade in which I, and all of you, were subjected to almost every piece of forgettable kiddie ephemera that the 1980s had to offer. But even in a decade that remade The Dukes of Hazzard, Transformers seemed an odd choice. Transformers, as far as I could tell at 17, had not survived. The only thing I’d ever seen from the franchise was Beast Wars, a far cry from the original series, a glorified toy commercial that existed only because of Reagan-era FCC deregulation. Though when you say it like that, it’s no surprise that the project was given to Michael Bay.

Although it must be said that I was only a teenager with a very limited film knowledge, when the TV ads promoted Transformers as “a film by Michael Bay,” I scratched my head. Michael Bay wasn’t a name director, though he would be after this, and his trademarks were long familiar to those more in-the-know: a product of Hollywood’s late-90s Dark Age, when a film didn’t have to make sense as long as it had lots of CGI; an auteur of perfunctory fascism, the unironic Paul Verhoeven, the Roland Emmerich who hates you for your stupidity even as he joyfully shares it; the man who thinks nuking Paris is inherently funny, believes all government is evil because they’re nerds, except police and the military who should rule us all, and jerks off to helicopters at sunset. Who could’ve been a more fitting choice?

The first thing Transformers hits you with is the noise. It pervades everything. Usually, when critics complain that a movie’s too noisy, it means they can’t really hear anything, but Transformers has the opposite problem: every unnatural clink, whirr, and boom is as clear and coldly precise as if each were the only sound in the room, though the characters act as if the transformers themselves operate in total silence. At one point, they stake out a hiding place at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, a place I can see from my living room window.

But that’s inasmuch as the transformers appear at all. Instead, we’re treated to an endless first act with little in the way of epic robot action. Pasadena teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBoeuf) is an awkward nerd trying to impress official hot girl Michaela (Megan Fox, slathered in vinaigrette for maximum sheen and seemingly written by a kindergartener) with his first car, an old Camaro. Little does he know that his Camaro (who at one point tries to get Sam to date-rape Michaela, because LOL) is actually Bumblebee, part of a species of immortal machnoid aliens that is caught in a civil war between the good-natured Autobots and the Decepticons, who need Sam as his arctic-exploring grandfather actually ended up in an accident that left his glasses imprinted with a map to the cube, a mysterious power source that creates new transformers.

Unfortunately, Sam and the Autobots run afoul of a secret shadow government created by President Herbert Hoover– I thought they meant Truman, but no, they meant Hoover, because their headquarters is inside Hoover Dam, which wasn’t so-called until after he was President, but fucking whatever– who want to keep the Autobots down because the government is full of inadequate eggheads, who inadvertently lead the the Decepticons to their long-frozen leader, Megatron. Thankfully, the military (personified by Josh Duhamel) shows up to put those stupid Fed bitches in their place and help the Autobots save the day.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The film isn’t terrible because it stops for thirty seconds just to make reference to a Mammy caricature who’s named Mammy. It isn’t because Hispanic characters talk in high-pitched, nasal Spanish so they can be inscrutable. It’s not because the Pentagon has a team of teenage hackers, one of which (a young Margot Robie) has an Australian accent, as the Pentagon is wont to do. It’s not because the military measures their security apparatus in football fields, because real measurements are for pussies. It’s not because the Autobots are able to hide in plain sight because they were added in in post. It’s not because Bumblebee pees on John Turturro. It’s not because Anthony Anderson exists to be a fat adult Urkel. It’s not because it doesn’t explain anything for an hour. It’s not because Sam Witwicky continues to be in the movie as if he still matters after his glasses have been found. It’s not because a movie with this kind of budget still reused multiple shots. And it’s certainly not because the movie didn’t bother to make me care about any of the characters, human or otherwise. It’s because that level of negligence, disengagement, deliberate bigotry, and outright loathing keeps on going for two and a half hours.

Transformers is not a breezy dramedy about child molestation, nor does it have a character named Topsy Kretz (say it out loud), nor is it an ugly, hateful star vehicle attempting to revive the career of a has-been comedian. But it is the first movie I have ever seen that seemed to want to punish me for watching movies. If you are a casual moviegoer, you won’t like this. If you’re a fan of Transformers, you won’t like this. This is nothing more than the product of a filmmaker who hates you.

Additional Notes

  • Jon Voight plays the Secretary of Defense, which is hilarious to me, considering what other movie he starred in that summer.
  • It’s apparent on multiple occasions that the Decepticons can impersonate human beings, which makes you wonder why the Autobots don’t just do the same thing.

  • Anthony Anderson’s character seems to exist solely so they can make a joke about how black people are preternaturally frightened of police. Fucking LOL.

  • This movie has shit blowing up all over Pasadena, my hometown, and Los Angeles, my adopted town (as well as the Universal backlot, which sticks out like crazy), and I know I’ve given people a hard time being oversensitive about 9/11, but even six years later, the way it’s treated, this is in extraordinarily bad taste; a bizarre combination of the authoritarian fawning of the 2000s, the careless frivolity of the 1990s, and Michael Bay’s own fetish for collateral damage. I would not be surprised if Michael Bay watched the Twin Towers fall and thought it was the coolest-looking thing evar. But then again, this is the same director who made Pearl Harbor. He even shoots down a black hawk helicopter in the climax to recall Black Hawk Down.

  • At one point during a period of urban destruction, a passerby compliments it as being “way better than [earlier Bay film] Armageddon.

  • I counted at least three instances of Bay’s beloved Helicopters at Sunset™.

  • Was this the first the first big blockbuster where the heroes still manage to get thousands of people killed because failure equals realism?

How Did It Do?
I’m told that the first Transformers movie is easily the most watchable and coherent, which is baffling. Bay’s shooting style has always been dizzyingly hyperactive, but with Transformers, he seems to have taken a lesson from mediocre turn-of-the-millennium comedies and tried to stuff as much random shit in the movie as possible to distract from the lack of cohesion; combine this with Bay’s distinctive eye and you get a film so busy and unfocused that your brain stops taking anything in, like how women in childbirth used to take truth serum to forget what it was like.

This effect might help explain why both critics and audiences had a considerably higher opinion of the film than everything that I just wrote would suggest. Not to say that it was well-received: it got a lukewarm 57% on RottenTomatoes. But the bulk of the reviews hosted by that site, if you read them, are curiously vague in their criticisms, mostly coming down to “I couldn’t understand what was going on” versus “it sure was big!” But isn’t that kind of a problem in itself? If a good movie is supposed to leave an impression, what does it say that people are so willing to forgive (the first) Transformers precisely because it doesn’t?

Of course, that didn’t stop people from flocking to the franchise: grossing $709.7 million against a budget of $150 million, Transformers was going nowhere, and its odd, then-uncategorizable It-factor became a mainstay of Hollywood: the mythos movie. Initially, mythos movies– films with science-fiction or fantasy overtones but which eschew the typical moral or speculative tropes found in those genres– were a hotbed of sponsorship by the US military. Yes, these films portray the military positively, and the Pentagon was so hard-up for new recruits in the depths of the Iraq War that they had begun marketing recruitment to middle-schoolers, but why anyone would be compelled to join up because of an alien-robot-Jesus movie and still be mentally competent enough to get in is dubious.

In reality, it didn’t work out that well. Most mythos films that aren’t derived from superhero comics are rooted in classic toy franchises, and American audiences rapidly soured on them. Each Transformers installment since the second, 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, has made successively less money in the United States. However, along with fellow stateside flops G.I. Joe and Battleship, they do extremely well in China, which has grown to become the bigger movie market. That’s not going to change until it stops working.

Next Time: Good Luck Chuck