National Treasure

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A heedless, fun, and solid piece of summer entertainment in the best Hollywood tradition.

Review:  Cinema, like any other creative endeavor, slides on a scale between pretentious and pretense-less.  ‘National Treasure’, a deliriously patriotic and good-humored entertainment, somehow falls on the pretense-less end without sacrificing its ambitious quasi-historical narrative.  Disney assembled an excellent cast, with Nicholas Cage, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Sean Bean, Harvey Keitel, and Christopher Plummer, and they all seemed to have a blast hamming it up in this traditionalist matinée adventure.  Disney’s major collaborations with producer Jerry Bruckheimer have been mostly quality throwback stories with nostalgic sensibilities.  ‘National Treasure’ is not innovative, but it’s done well, as it hits all the popcorn flick story beats with heedless abandon.  In this sense, it is without pretense, knowing exactly where it stands.  On the other hand, central to the plot is a rather loose but very positive interpretation of American history that bubbles up into brief soliloquies.  Despite A-list talent, such diversions could have easily crippled its decent B-movie plot, but because of the story’s philosophical nature, it works.

The best thing about ‘National Treasure’ is that it actually has a good central theme, that is, all history is family history.  This is best illustrated in the excellent prologue when young Benjamin Gates sneaks into his grandfather’s attic in search of secrets.  Grandpa (Christopher Plummer) finds him there and rewards his quest for knowledge by summing up the film’s McGuffin, setting up the narrative desire succinctly in the first few minutes.  Above all, we learn that Ben’s lifelong desire to find the titular treasure comes from his love for his family.  His knowledge of American history is merely that love extended.  Also, by starting out with young Ben, we get a sense of time’s fluidity and how entangled past and present become over the film’s course.  Extrapolating, the moral of the story is clear: History is integral to our identity, and such entanglement, as is the protagonist’s desire, should be ours as well.

As I am fond of maintaining, sound is half the picture, and composer Trevor Rabin (formerly of progressive rock outfit Yes) really sold the film.  The score reinforces the scenario’s grand implications, deftly mixing epic brass with electronic and rock elements, a genre-bending feat indicative of Rabin’s roots.  The themes of depth of history, love of family, and acceleration toward a technology-laden future all find a musical spouse in Rabin’s work.

One last note before I close: The awkward finale, which features not one, but two fake-out endings, actually has a thematic purpose, though subtle.  The Freemasons, integral to the historical background, had only three levels or degrees in the period in which the titular treasure was supposedly hidden.  Therefore, the three treasure rooms, and their corresponding character reactions, correlate to each degree.  What seems excessive makes sense, with a little perspective.

Patrick’s Top Ten Movies Just To Watch For Special Effects

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Let’s get one thing straight: You always should watch films for their story, for a strong narrative that offers some message or at least entertains. Unfortunately, not all films have a good story. Some movies just go for visual appeal, placing CGI, explosions, stunt scenes, or cool creature designs over plot; but occasionally it works. Anyways, if you’re going to watch a film just for the effects, these are the ones to watch.

10. Transformers (2007)

The plot is certainly sketchy. But hey, I do love me some fifty-foot robots waging all out war.

9. Robocop (1987)

It’s like ‘Lethal Weapon’ meets the ‘Terminator’. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all, but Robocop just looks so darn awesome as he fights criminals with an array of machine guns and explosives.

8. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

I think the word that sums this film up is “boring”. But at least the ships look really good and there’s a cool quasi-psychedelic cloud scene.

7. The Lost World (1997)

The original philosophy and social-commentary that Michael Crichton put into the novel isn’t captured particularly well in its big screen adaptation. The dinosaurs look mighty fine though.

6. Valley of Gwangi (1969)

This film starts out as a crappy western that then decides to rip-off ‘King Kong’ and become a crappy western with stop-motions dinosaurs. But like ‘The Lost World’ it still looks pretty cool, albeit in a very nostalgic way.

5. Independence Day (1996)

Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin specialize in making big budget B-movies, and this was certainly their most riveting. The dialogue and plot are corny and trite as they come, but ‘lots of jet-plane-on-alien-ship dogfights and fun looking aliens make this worthwhile.

4. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

The moving message of the original ‘First Blood’ gets lost in the explosions and machine-gun fire of the sequel, but you tell me that explosive arrowheads and helicopter fights aren’t still fun to watch.

3. Destroy All Monsters (1968)

I didn’t say the effects had to be good, only that they were the reason to see the movie. The film reeks of cheesy, cheesy camp value, which some love and others shun. But no one can deny the wonderful spectacle of guys in rubber suits beating the crap out of each other, especially when it features the “Who’s Who” of giant monsters (Godzilla, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and many, many more).

2. The Trip (1967)

Lots of strange visuals and music fill this cult-film about a man who takes LSD for the first time. I can only imagine that under the right “influence”, it must be quite an experience.

1. Tron (1982)

Okay, I admit this one actually had a pretty good story, but the real reason you saw this was the ground breaking CGI that brought this arcade/futuristic world to life. Nothing like it was seen before, and in the nearly thirty years since it’s release, its visuals still have a certain charm. If there ever was a movie to see just for special effects, its ‘Tron’.

The Book of Eli

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An example of a genre film elevated by powerful truths.


Review:  When I set out to review this film, I inclined to rate it three stars.  I liked it, but there wasn’t that glee that usually comes from watching a really great movie.  However, upon further reflection, ‘The Book of Eli’ clearly deserves the honor of a full four.  I set out to review it, and its tantalizingly subtle greatness got to me.  There are layers here, man.  Caves of treasure to plunder.

At first look, it’s your typical pretentious post-apocalyptic science fiction story, with visuals and production design similar to ‘Mad Max’ and sundry films, all manner of mangas, comic books, and what have you.  Lots of martial arts, guns, car chases, and explosions, all set in a desert wasteland made so by nuclear holocaust.  An old drillbit, if you will, worn down from spinning in the groove too long.  Thankfully, the cast’s more than up for the challenge.  The protagonist, Denzel Washington’s Eli, is a dangerous, solitary journeyman who’s got the world’s last Bible (old King James Version, naturally). Eli wants to take it somewhere safe.  He believes God told him to.  He enters a town in search of water, and crosses swords with Gary Oldman’s Carnegie, the educated de-facto leader who covets the sacred book.  Carnegie wants the book for reason of its influence, which of course he can exploit for his nefarious ends.  Along the way, Eli gradually lets a local girl, the beautiful Mila Kunis’ Solara, in on his secrets.

The action is superb, and while that gets butts in seats (as does Mila Kunis), the religious nature of the film is difficult to swallow.  So, as Peter O’Toole’s character Anton Ego in ‘Ratatouille’ may suggest, what we need is a little perspective.

Subgenres, such as post-apocalyptic science fiction, can quickly become stale.  Seeing as they’re built upon more specific rules than your typical genre film, it’s the nature of the beast.  How they are properly refreshed is not necessarily by breaking those rules, but by finding what made a subgenre’s core ideas interesting in the first place.   Post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t about the end of the world, but its beginnings, the basics of human society.  The idea central to ‘The Book of Eli’ is one often overlooked in the past century’s popular fiction: discipleship.

Discipleship means imitation.  It is the process by which knowledge is properly transmitted, not as information, but as wisdom, and by which the meaning of one life carries on in another.  As uncomfortable as it is for people in our individualistic, depersonalized society to admit, the desire for discipleship is a natural, indeed crucial part of the human psyche.  If you are never someone’s disciple, it’s analogous to having never experienced childhood.  It leaves us out of balance, without a center.  Prior to the media proliferation that we take for granted in our era, it was the chief method of passing on history, the weight of the human experience.  In an unbroken chain of disciples, there is a depth of wisdom that is foreign to the frission-based postmodern world.  If and when our world comes tumbling down, the master-to-learner dynamic will prove essential.  ‘The Book of Eli’ is a bold affirmation of this basic human relationship.

There’s much more here that’s worthy of reflection, such as the dynamics of religion and power, knowledge and violence, education and class division, sex and survival.  The sad thing about films like ‘The Book of Eli’ is that, due to cultural saturation, they get lost somewhere and aren’t appreciated.  This is a gem worth digging for.

Classic Review: The Godfather

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A beautiful, terrible tragedy, a prescient cinematic masterpiece.

Review:  If there is a perfect example of the modern tragedy, it’s Francis Ford Coppola’s epic ‘The Godfather’.  As of 11/20/10, it stands at #2 on the top 250 movies; a biased, transient list, to be sure, but a testament to its power over the past two generations of filmgoers.  The film is oft-cited, especially to amateur screenwriters, as the pinnacle of the dramatic craft.  What makes this story so effective?  What sets it, and other films we call “classic”, apart from the rest of the bunch?

The beautiful thing about ‘The Godfather’ is that it is brutally honest about the nature of evil.  The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions; and hell, it seems, would be best defined as that state in which one has imprisoned one’s conscience in a cell made of excuses.  The conscience will kick against the walls and make the soul most uncomfortable, but the person will survive, perhaps wondering why every day has such a nagging sense of loss.  It’s a state that, despite what we like to think about ourselves, we are all familiar with, and this makes the protagonist, Michael Corleone, a person with whom we deeply sympathize.

‘The Godfather’ is about the true villains of the world, and they seem awfully similar to its heroes.  Michael, the youngest son of a Mafia don (or “Godfather”) initially keeps his distance from his beloved family, knowing full well the darkness inherit in the business.  After his father’s gunned down by order of rival Dons, Michael’s love for his family overcomes his moral qualms and he deeply, personally makes their survival his business.  It’s the Aristotelean tragedy; a man drawn to a terrible conclusion by a series of plausible, relatable events.  Michael could have chosen to take the moral high ground and refused a life of murder, vengeance, and generational manipulation, and we would have understood and agreed with him.  That he chooses his family over his own soul, we also understand, even if we wouldn’t necessarily agree.  He even loses his ability to be intimate and honest with those closest to him, making the tragedy complete.  It’s a complex dénouement for a complex problem, a bittersweet dish worth chewing on.  We’re forced to examine ourselves.  That’s the ideal function of cinema: clear reflection.

So we understand that its bittersweet flavor makes it a potent and prescient film.  Contrasting triumph and tragedy is a hallmark of many great films, especially modern epics, such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘Star Wars’, and the much disputed ‘Matrix’ trilogy.  Here, that dramatic contrast exists in one life, much like our own.  We’re confronted by a flickering silver mirror, and we’re forced to ask: “Is the image of Michael my own?”

Classic Review: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  Stanley Kubrick brilliantly uses provocative social-satire to show the world the Cold War’s insanity.

Review: I enjoyed watching ‘Dr. Strangelove’ a lot, and had I been around to appreciate some of the attitudes and paranoia of the Cold War, I probably would have enjoyed it even more.  What makes this film so entertaining is that it shows the absolute worst-case scenario, that most dreaded fear for mankind-Nuclear Holocaust — but it does so in such a wonderfully humorous way.

And so we can’t help but laugh.  We laugh at the comically insane general who orders U.S. B-52’s to bomb the Soviets and purposely start a war.  We laugh at the crazily patriotic captain of one of the planes, with his cowboy hat and goofy southern accent, who vows to do his patriotic duty come hell or high water.  We laugh as the President of the United States and the Soviet Premier, who are evidently VERY good friends, argue about what to do, and we laugh at the bumbling politicians in Washington who scramble to call the bombing off, lest they set off a Soviet super-weapon.  We laugh because the situation is so absurd.  It’s so goofy and ridiculous and hilarious throughout.

But then the ending comes, and we see a montage of nuclear explosions (for the Russian super-weapon has gone off) that seems oddly out-of-place with the rest of the film.  All of the sudden there’s a sinking feeling in our stomach, and the last feeling of this film is that of sorrow.

Why such a sad ending?  It’s because Kubrick is reminding us of something: While incredibly funny, the seemingly absurd situation in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is not so far from possibility.  Sure, it seemed ridiculous in the film, but the threat of sudden, unexpected war, people not knowing what to do or how to stop it, and total annihilation is actually a reality.  The film’s insanity parallels that of the Cold War and really of all war.  Escalation, growing militaristic tension, and the constant hatred of the “other” can only lead to tragedy.  Had the United States and the Soviet Union persisted in this, we likely could all be dead now, much like the ending of the film.  It was only through reconciliation and reaching out on both sides that allowed for the Cold War to end, and even now there is still tension with other countries due to it.  Let’s hope we never run into an ending like ‘Dr. Strangelove’.

This film is one of Kubrick’s many cinematic masterpieces.  His strong sense of storytelling shines through brilliantly here, and his message is as powerful as any he has given.  Few people could have mixed something so funny with something so meaningful, and few movies are stronger for it.

Classic Review: A Clockwork Orange

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: Cruel, vulgar, prophetic, ugly, and yet strangely beautiful at the same time.

Review: A Clockwork Orange was Stanley Kubrick’s follow up to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, and it is every bit that film’s antithesis. ‘2001’ was fantastic and altruistic; ‘Clockwork’ is gritty and bleak. ‘2001’ shows the human race’s potential, ‘Clockwork’ shows its reality. It’s a study of the ever present savagery and barbarism in our world; a strange, sad film, lacking in any obvious optimism. Thanks to Kubrick’s master craft, though, it’s also one of the best films of its time.

The movie takes place in a totalitarian England. Sort of totalitarian at least. That facet of the narrative isn’t really developed until the last act, but it’s worth mentioning. Anyways, though, this is a despotic world of “ultra-violence”: savage gangs of young men roam the streets at night, beating, robbing, and raping. One of the leaders of these gangs is Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the most twisted and despicable of them all. Long before Heath Ledger’s Joker terrorized for the sake of terror, Alex was causing his own self-satisfying chaos. He shows no remorse; laughing as he maims the defenseless, singing as he rapes women, and grinning malevolently as he even abuses his own gang members (“droogs” as they are called in the film). He’s truly an awful, awful human being. And yet, there’s this other side to him.

You see, Alex loves Beethoven. He absolutely adores his music, particularly Beethoven’s 9th symphony (the music of which is used for much of the film’s score) and listens to it frequently. In general, he also has a great appreciation for art. That and he’s a gifted speaker. His voiceover narrations throughout the film are given in Nasdat, an unorthodox English-dialect that is surprisingly eloquent, even as it describes his vulgar pass times. In Alex is a strange paradox: For as absolutely savage as he is, he seems equally cultured.

Eventually the law catches up to Alex and he is sent to prison, where he volunteers for an experimental new treatment for rehabilitating prisoners, a treatment that will cut his sentence short considerably. This turns out very disturbing, as Alex is conditioned to become painfully ill at even the thought of committing violence to others. As an unexpected side effect, he also becomes painfully ill whenever he hears Beethoven’s 9th. As the price of losing his savagery, he has also lost much of his culture. He returns to face a world that’s as cruel as he used to be, only now he cannot defend himself due to his treatment. In a bizarre twist, we find ourselves pitying him as he becomes the victim in life.

At its core, this film is a parable on choice. As a priest directly points out in the film, Alex has been denied free will through his treatment. He is compelled to do good only to avoid pain, not because he sees the evil inherent in his old ways. It’s left him weak and vulnerable and has cost him his humanity. He’s also lost his precious Beethoven in the process, and he no longer speaks in Nasdat as often. Taking away his choice has, in effect, killed the beauty along with the beast.

Kubrick’s message is clear: Those who are incapable of doing real evil are also incapable of doing real good. Free will ultimately means that there will always be evil in this world. It’s sad but it’s true. So long as free will exists there will be war and poverty and violence and rape starvation. But without free will, there is also no beauty, no love, no sacrifice, no charity, and most importantly, no hope. In short, there is no good. Alex’s old life was hateful and ugly, but his new one is something much worse, it is hopeless and despairing. So too are we without free choice.

Lightning struck many times for Stanley Kubrick, but I don’t think it ever did so quite as enigmatically as it did for this film. It’s a wonderfully stylistic picture with a very powerful message, and for this reason it rivals ‘2001’ as his most prolific work. However, this film isn’t for everyone. It’s practically saturated with violence and nudity. It has to be. But for that reason this isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s mature subject matter for mature minds. For those who can handle the intensity, it’s a riveting and stimulating picture that offers a bold message to the viewer. It’s one of the best films Kubrick ever made, and in my opinion, one of the best films of all time. If you think you can handle it, it’s worth your time.

Let The Right One In

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A true masterpiece of postmodern horror, with heartrending emotional realism.

Review:  No matter who you are, when you’re a kid, bullying always seems to find you.  For some of us, it’s the moment when we realize that the world isn’t a friendly place.  Many are deeply scarred by their experiences and they may become dysfunctional.  Others adapt.   ‘Let The Right One In’ explores the most tragic response to childhood bullying; turning into a bully yourself.  The boy at the story’s heart sees it as the only way out.  Then the little girl shows up.  She’s not like any kid that Oskar has ever known.  She tells him his instincts are correct.  With Oskar right on the cusp of puberty, the mysterious Eli is magnetic, and in due time he gets close enough to discover the terrible truth: She’s a vampire.

This is a meditation on all aspects of abuse, which is what makes ‘Let The Right One In’ a prime example of the horror genre.  There’s nothing scarier than the bitter truth.  The title comes from a rule, mentioned occasionally in vampire legends, that prevents a vampire from entering a place uninvited.  As Oskar discovers, casual evil is indiscriminate, but the most insidious things ask for permission.  As we know, bullying doesn’t disappear when we grow up; it just becomes more devious.  An abuser needs victims for their sense of self to survive.  There’s an obvious parallel with vampirism.

Eli is a vampire’s victim, and tragically, she can only survive by embracing this new identity and the habitual murder that comes with it.  The character isn’t a villain or an object of horror.  She’s a believable, sympathetic person.  Oskar, for his part, just wants his anger to mean something.  Eli catches him early on stabbing a tree and practicing taunts.  When I was young and angry, sometimes my parents told me to go punch a pillow; but it didn’t matter, really, whether I punched a pillow or a brick wall.  We all want our fantasies to manifest.  Some of us have wise guardians who prevent us from taking vengeance and destroying ourselves.  Oskar isn’t so lucky.  Eli becomes his protector, but she’s also the ultimate bully.  Her feelings for Oskar are genuine, but she’s also the worst thing for him.

The film is technically well executed.  There’s no shaky handheld camera, jump cuts, or cheap scares.  The pristine wintry scenery is breathtaking and deceptively serene.  Johan Söderqvist’s score is incredibly beautiful, and if you need proof, just take a listen here.  The standout scene of the entire film is, fittingly, the ending.  I’ll probably never look at a swimming pool the same way again.

‘Let The Right One In’ will be considered among the 21st Century’s first masterpieces, even if it is under-appreciated by the public.  It’s a cinematic opus, a story that director Tomas Alfredson and writer John Ajvide Lindqvist should be terribly proud of.