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.

Classic Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: Arguably the first horror film, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is an indelible part of film history and a cohesive idea that simply works.

Review:  When you’re studying to become a filmmaker, you run into all kinds of rules, stated or implied.  Filmmakers develop most of these to guide their own works, but soon enough they’re foisted on everybody else, and by necessity it becomes a creative act to reject good advice.  The first psychological thriller, and arguably the first horror film, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, is evidence that our postmodern rules of visual storytelling often obscure the power of simplicity.

‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is the stylistic antithesis of the excessively busy, painfully impatient, and overproduced postmodern film.  The filmmakers used the limitations of silence, locked-down camera angles, and (by our standards) long takes to its advantage.  ‘Caligari’, of course, pre-dates the demands of postmodern filmmaking, which puts an emphasis on extreme camera movement and rapid cutting between different angles.  What ‘Caligari’ testifies is that the image’s union with the story is the most important thing.  Because of the exquisite compositions and a pacing that’s rooted in the performances, the film is hypnotic.  The set design is oft-cited for a very good reason, with crazed lines and distorted spaces reflecting the madness central to the film’s story.  The performances are purposefully exaggerated and always crystal clear.  I think most films would be better off taking a page from the silent era and letting the actors communicate as much as possible without dialog.

The film is an indispensable experience for cinephiles and budding filmmakers.  Its influence continues in almost every horror film produced today, as well as in filmmakers such as Tim Burton, Henry Selick, Alex Proyas, and God knows who else.


Classic Review: Lillies of the Field

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Review:  To recognize both the conclusion of Black History Month and the recent Academy Awards Presentation, I thought it would be fitting to review Lilies of the Field, the first film to give the award for Best Actor to an African American, Sidney Poitier.

The opening shot of Lilies of the Field does not do much in the way of grandeur—an old car driving down a desert highway with a simple song in the background.  It’s not epic, it’s not grand; it’s comfortable, cozy.  In many ways, this shot sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The film introduces us to Homer Smith (Poitier), a self described “black Baptist” and a drifting handyman, who stumbles across a convent in the Arizona wilderness and is hired by its nuns to do some maintenance work.  Homer first works in order to make a quick buck—something the Mother Superior, the other lead in this movie and something of an antagonist to Homer, promises but never gives.  Still, she manages to coerce him to stay, work, and even drive the nuns around.  A bond begins to grow between Homer and the religious sisters.  The center event of the movie though, is when the Mother Superior asks that Homer build for them a chapel near their convent.  At first reluctant to do so, Homer soon finds that this chapel is a matter of pride for him, and with faith, humility, and hard work, the logical “happy ending” is reached.

Though depicting Catholic nuns and having a famous Bible quote, the “lilies” passage of Mathew 28, as the movie’s theme, this film manages to not feel overly religious.  Catholic, even Christian, elements are kept to a minimum.  Jesus, for example, is only mentioned in song.  The presence of God, though he himself is commonly mentioned, does not saturate this movie.  Yes, it’s about faith, but it’s also about human relationships.  The constant struggle between Homer and the Mother Superior is iconic, as each side represents a strong personality that holds out to get what he or she wants, only to find in the end that each must give in order to receive.

As I said in the beginning, this is a film that gets much of its joy out of quality simplicity.  Sidney Poitier gives a performance deserving of his Oscar as Homer.  It isn’t five minutes into the movie that we, the audience, completely accept him as a convincing and believable character, despite the fact that we know nothing of his past.  Still, his performance doesn’t feel overly dramatic.  He’s no Ben-Hur, but for this movie he certainly doesn’t have to be.  Lilia Skala as the Mother Superior plays an equally convincing role, again never failing to incite believability in her character.

Lastly, though the technical aspects of this movie are not mesmerizing, they flesh out the movie quite well.  It was shot on location in the desert, and a real sense of progress is felt as the chapel gets closer and closer to completion (an actual crew labored through the night to achieve this effect).  Finally, Jerry Goldsmith’s score, with its folk-grassroots sound and use of a popular Baptist hymn, complements the movie beautifully and is in itself a treasure to simply listen to.
In conclusion, Lilies of the Field is a touching little movie.  A sort of diamond in the rough, this film gets two thumbs up from me, and I cite it as an example of how great movies need not be expensive.

Classic Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Stars: **** out of Four

Summary:  Harrison Ford’s definitive action hero role shines in his debut, arguably the best adventure film of all time.

Heck yes.

Heck yes.

Review:  I first saw ‘Raiders’ when I was about 9 or 10, on VHS.  It scared me to death.  The film’s many surprises, and especially its horrific climax, terrified me.

Now, it’s one of my favorite movies.

The first colloboration between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas opened in 1981, shattering box office records set by the creators of the film themselves.  Combining Spielberg’s steller direction, understanding of suspense, and whimsical imagination, with Lucas’ inventive story, delivered a one-two punch that is yet to be equalled.

The film used elements of the action/adventure cliffhanger serials of the 1930s to breath life into the action genre.  Indiana Jones, a graverobbing archaeologist, was the protagonist.  Combining James Bond and Humphrey Bogart, he borrowed elements from the heroes of the serials, including a bullwhip from Zorro and a hat from countless others.  The fedora, Jones’ iconic headgear, went on to become his symbol.  Now the fedora is synomymous with Indiana Jones.

The film’s pacing is superb.  There is never a dull moment.  Spielberg uses techniques derived from Alfred Hitchcock to infuse ‘Raiders’ with constant peril.  The action scenes, where some of the most iconic moments where planned on-set, are often parodied or homaged.  In particular the stunt in which Indy slides under a German truck while it is motion, and then works his way back into the cabin.  By understating the action, and keeping it grounded, what might be pedestrian in another movie comes across as mind-blowing in this one.

I mentioned the horror element.  It’s not that the film is extremely frightening, though it is for some children, but that the film critically uses small amounts of blood, gore, and scares to keep you on edge.  The worst scene is the climax, which depicts a man’s face melting off his bones, among other things.  Though rated PG, if it were released today it would earn a PG-13 rating.  Some minor cuts kept it from an R during its initial release.  This is a fun movie, in the vein of ‘Star Wars’, but is much more mature.  It’s not a kids movie, but don’t feel bad about letting teenagers see it.

The film is followed by three sequels, which I will review in the future.  I like parts of all those movies, but ‘Raiders’ is the one I admire the most.

Classic Review: Citizen Kane

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Visually striking and intriguing, Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece still holds its place as one of the greatest American films.

Why is it terrific?  Cause hes CHARLES FOSTER KANE!

Why is it terrific? 'Cause he's CHARLES FOSTER KANE!

Review:  ‘Citizen Kane’ is a hard film to comment on.  It’s like critiquing the Sistine Chapel, to some people.  Not so with myself.  I don’t think this is the greatest film ever made; definitely a great, but not the best.  I personally give that honor to ‘Ben-Hur’, which I will also be reviewing down the line.

The structure of ‘Citizen Kane’ has definitely left its mark on similar fictional biopic movies.  Both ‘Kane’ and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ begin with the titular character either dying or already dead.  Both stories are retrospective looks into the lives of the title characters.

Charles Foster Kane, though, is much different from Benjamin Button.  Based on a composite of Howard Hughes, William Randolph Hearst and even Orson Welles himself, Kane is a super-wealthy newspaperman who was given up by his parents when he was not even a pre-teenager.  This one dramatic incident, it turns out, reveals to the savvy viewer the key to understanding the emotionally distant Kane.  When Kane died, he uttered one word: ‘Rosebud’.  A great deal of mystery surrounds it, compelling a determined reporter to search for its meaning, hoping it will reveal who exactly Kane was, since he died alone and without any real friends.  In short, Kane was embittered to the point of sociopathy.  Though he greatly desired love, he couldn’t recieve it, and therefore couldn’t give it.  It’s only at the end of his life that Kane realizes what he was missing; but by then, it is too late.  If you haven’t seen ‘Kane’, I can’t spoil the ending for you, since it is singular, iconic, and critical to the suspense of the film.  It is also noteworthy for inspiring the end of another classic, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.

By necessity, the story is told from a very distant, detached perspective.  I never really felt involved.  I was intrigued, and fascinated, but it didn’t pull me in.  This, depending on your tastes, can ruin the film for you.  It didn’t for me, but I did feel it was missing something.  This does seem to reflect Charles Foster Kane himself; intriguing, but never connecting.  If this was intentional (which I believe it was), that’s an example of terrific writing.

The cinematography is very memorable, and dynamic.  The opening shots of Xanadu, Kane’s estate, at twilight, set up a Gothic atmosphere that haunts us throughout.  There is almost always something striking on screen, be it rain, lightning, snow, fire, or even dancing.  Even the most pedestrian of scenes are shot in a way that calls attention to the meticulous detail in the background, by use of deep focus.  ‘Kane’ deserves the acclaim it gets in this area.

As for music, Bernard Herrmann, who would go on to score, among other things, Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ and Wise’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, does a good job in complementing the picture.  Unfortunately, none of his music for ‘Kane’ really stood out to me.

‘Citizen Kane’ is certainly a great film.  It remains, though, well off my top ten favorite motion pictures.  Perhaps it is because of how much it reflects Kane himself.

If you consider yourself a lover of movies, you’ve gotta see this at least once.  You may not like it, or you may love it, but it is valuable in a historic sense.