Friday, August 1, 2008

Friday's Featured Film - 8/1/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

The first National Treasure, released in 2004, functioned as a poor man’s Indiana Jones – a lighthearted, fun romp that treats reality as a rubber band to be stretched whenever convenient. The movie was impossible to take seriously, but it worked well as a family-friendly action-adventure – something of a disappearing thing in modern cinema. Heather and I both enjoyed it, so we were excited to check out the sequel on DVD last week. While National Treasure: Book of Secrets exceeds even its predecessor on the implausibility scale and fails to deliver quite the same level of entertainment, fans of the first will still find this a fun piece of filmmaking.

Nicolas Cage returns as Benjamin Franklin Gates, now a famous historian and treasure hunter thanks to his escapades in the first film. He and his father (Jon Voight) are stunned to see mysterious evidence presented implicating their ancestor in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Confident that Thomas Gates (Joel Gretsch in flashback) was an American hero rather than a traitor and suspicious of the motivations of the evidence’s presenter (Ed Harris), the two reunite with Ben’s now-ex girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger) and techie friend Riley (Justin Bartha) and set off on a globe-trotting search that will lead them deep into the secrets of our country’s past.

To say that the movie makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull look like a documentary isn’t really an indictment on the film. After all, the first National Treasure’s premise involved a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, so I suppose anything’s fair game. If you’re criticizing the plausibility of the plot, then this movie wasn’t intended for you. More troubling, however, is the artificial nature of the film’s characters. The degree to which Ben and Abigail get along in any given scene seems to be driven far more by a screenplay then anything resembling actual feelings or motivation, and the same thing can be said about the relationship between Ben’s father Patrick and his estranged wife Emily (Helen Mirren, whose presence here seems about as fitting as seeing Kenneth Branagh in an Adam Sandler movie). Harris’ villainous Mitch Wilkinson’s motivations are kept mysterious for most of the film, but when they’re finally revealed at the end his character is more of a plot device than an actual character. Of course, these movies are nothing but a collection of plot devices strung together just tightly enough to form an entertaining movie, and director Jon Turteltaub injects just enough wit and charm to keep the audience interested and mildly entertained. The cast is mostly decent, with only Bartha really given the chance by the script to show any kind of engaging persona. Diane Kruger’s German accent is present to a small enough degree to indicate she’s trying to hide it but a large enough degree to indicate she’s doing a really crappy job of it. Her character ultimately seems disposable, but the movie has to have a female banter-partner for Cage, so back she comes. I realize this review probably sounds more negative than my star rating would seem to indicate, but ultimately this is a movie that ends up being more than the sum of its parts. It’s a pleasant ride, though to a lesser degree than its predecessor. Still, if you’re looking for a light but entertaining adventure that you can enjoy alongside the kids rather than after they go to bed, you’ll likely feel like you got your money’s worth out of the rental. - **1/2 (out of 4)

National Treasure: Book of Secrets is rated PG for some violence and action.

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