Category Archives: 2000s

Manufactured Landscapes (2006)

*. When I first saw Manufactured Landscapes ten or so years ago I was impressed by the photography but thought it an awkward film. I wondered if it was about Edward Burtynsky or about his subject matter: the impact of industrialism on the environment. There’s no reason it can’t be about both, and it is, but it has trouble being about both in any depth.
*. Thus we see flashes of Burtynsky at work and hear his voice, but we don’t find out much about him or his attitude toward either his art or the industrial reshaping of the planet. He is deliberately (and I think, like most artists, wisely) quiet on the matter of his intentions and reluctant to offer up interpretations of his own work. And while what we see is eye-opening (Chinese factories, a ship-wrecking flat in Bangladesh, the building of the Three Gorges Dam), we don’t really learn much about the environmental issues involved since the emphasis is all on the images and not on any information in the form of voiceover or interviews.
*. Another awkwardness of the “neither this nor that”: it’s a movie made about a still photographer. So it’s film shoots of photo shoots, but we never really feel as though we’re seeing much “behind the scenes.” How did Burtynsky select these locations? What went into decisions like the perspective and framing of particular shots? Jennifer Baichwal’s director’s commentary fills you in a lot more on the political issues of shooting in China at the time, but that’s not part of the movie.
*. I’m happy to say though that re-watching it today I was more impressed, and none of this bothered me as much. The basic point is pretty clearly illustrated: that twenty-first century industrialization is a nightmare, creating a hell on earth. It’s hard to imagine people living like this. I’ve worked on a factory floor and to call it soul-destroying isn’t even the half of it. Watching piece-work being done here I couldn’t help thinking how this just isn’t something our species was meant for. We evolved to do this?

*. I also had to think of Adam Smith: “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
*. Except I wouldn’t want to say stupid. What I’d say is bored. The manufactured landscapes here recall another voice, that of Günter Grass in The Tin Drum. In that novel the cement pillboxes that are part of the German Atlantic wall defence system are seen by their creator as works of art (called Structural Oblique Formations), and perhaps the only works of genius of the twentieth century. They come with the subtitle Barbaric, Mystical, Bored. Another character, on hearing this, says “you have given our century its name.”
*. Burtynsky has an eye for this same aesthetic, and the structural oblique formations of mass industry. It’s not so much a movie about man interacting with nature (as Burtynsky says in the intro), because nature feels non-existent here, or is just there to be dug up and shit on. Instead, nature is that massive factory floor we dolly through in the nine-minute opening shot. The “Factory of the World” is what it’s called, and the workers later assemble outside for a group photo that not even Fritz Lang could have imagined. And while the apocalyptic vision of Metropolis has been expanded exponentially, for the workers it’s only Tuesday.
*. The photos show what the industrial sublime of an artist like Charles Sheeler, who made industry seem inhuman but pure, pristine, and coldly rational, has now turned into. Here industry, however gigantic and baroque, is messy, squalid, and dirty. I suppose some sense of mysticism attaches to it, but lots more barbarity and boredom. Meanwhile, the humans have become mere cogs in the machines. They seem almost like microbes feeding on an industrial corpse. Nearly twenty years later, I also had to wonder how many of these jobs have now been replaced by robots.

*. The anti-humanism is of a piece with the anti-naturalism of the film’s vision. This isn’t industry as man’s nature but operating as a force destructive of that nature. This also made the introduction of the Shanghai real estate agent seem out of place. What part does she play in any of this? She’s fabulously rich, but just another microbe. They were wise to cut the scenes of the stonecutter, included with the DVD. He’s an artist from a vanished world in more ways than one.
*. So it’s a movie that has really held up, packing just as much of a punch as it did when it came out. So much so that in 2018 Anthropocene: The Human Epoch wouldn’t have much to add aside from more spectacular imagery and a bit of voiceover.
*. What I miss here though is the other half of the equation. This is the story of mass production, but mass consumption is largely left alone. Obviously that’s not Burtynsky’s bailiwick, but I still found it a present absence. What we do see is Burtynsky’s photos being consumed, in their way, in art galleries. This forces us to see them as being as much a product as the steam irons and widgets turned out by the Factory of the World. Burtynsky even talks about this in the bonus material included with the DVD. Without oil and the industrial economy there wouldn’t be a movie like Manufactured Landscapes, not because there’d be nothing to film but because the film itself couldn’t be produced. I think it’s even called an irony at one point. But it’s also something darker than that.

Prince of the Himalayas (2006)

*. Shakespeare travels well. Othello has been relocated to the Wild West (Jubal) and The Tempest set in outer space (Forbidden Planet), so why not play Hamlet in Tibet?
*. If nothing else, you know you’re going to get some nice scenery. And indeed the scenery and the native costumes are the main attraction here. The elaborate headwear alone is worth the price of admission. At least, if you’re into that kind of thing.
*. As for the Shakespeare, it’s middling. The basic plot and characters are all in place. Prince Lhamoklodan returns home to find his father dead and his uncle, who is now king, married to his mother. He reignites a romantic relationship with Odsaluyang (Ophelia), hangs out with his friend Horshu (Horatio), is visited by the ghost of his murdered father, vows revenge, and ends up killing Odsaluyang’s father Po-lha-nyisse (Polonius). Odsaluyang’s brother Lessar (Laertes) comes back and there’s a duel and everyone’s dead at the end.

*. A lot of the dialogue is recognizable too, at least as it is rendered in subtitles (apparently it was done in Tibetan, which means that almost everyone who sees it will be reading subtitles). There’s a terrific moment in the scene where Lhamoklodan (Hamlet) asks his mother to compare the pictures of his father and his uncle. In Shakespeare, Hamlet describes his father as having “Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself, an eye like Mars, to threaten and command, a station like the herald Mercury New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill.” In the movie he’s said to look “like a heroic yak.”

*. Other differences are intriguing. In the first place, the Gertrude and Claudius characters here were lovers before Gertrude married Hamlet Sr., and the old king was a right bastard. When he found out that she’d been fooling around with his brother he became abusive and inflicted upon her “the cruelest punishment.” I’m not sure what this amounted to but it seems to have involved some kind of sexual violence. Complicating matters more, Hamlet is actually Gertrude and Claudius’s love child, conceived before she married Hamlet Sr. When he found out about that he planned on killing them both, but Claudius got him first by way of a poisoned lap-dog.
*. All of this has the effect of making Claudius (his name here is Kulo-gnam) a far more sympathetic figure, while the ghost of Hamlet Sr. is an evil spirit just looking for revenge.

*. The other big change is that Lhamoklodan and Odsaluyang fully consummate their love and she is pregnant when she kills herself. Indeed, she gives birth in the river she drowns in, with her baby being rescued by a witchy wolf-woman who looks like one of the Weird Sisters dropped in from Macbeth.

*. I suppose purists might take exception to all this, but I found these new twists on the old tale to be fascinating. They turn it into a new story, but at the same time they also make you think of the old story in a new light. What if the ghost really was just a bitter shit? What if Claudius wasn’t such a bad guy?
*. Of course, the changes mean that the ending becomes something very different. Hamlet now has a death wish and a Laertes to kill him, while Claudius is actually trying to kill Laertes to save Hamlet. Nobody is thinking straight, but the upshot is that there’s a final message that is all about forgiveness and reconciliation and not revenge. A new hope arises as the wolf woman brings out the baby, which also means there’s no need of the Fortinbras character (an Amazon queen here) to be reintroduced.
*. In sum, this is a movie that I think anyone interested in adaptations of Shakespeare will want to hunt down. It is not a great movie. Director Sherwood Hu strikes me as being a little too fond of the historical costume-drama stuff. He doesn’t do action sequences well, and tries too hard to cover up for the fact. Nor does the score help much at such moments (the music accompanying the fight over Ophelia’s body as it lies on its spirit boat at the shore of the lake seemed particularly inappropriate, at least to my ear). Some of the editing struck me as bizarre, as though much more had been shot and big chunks had then been taken out.
*. Still, it’s Hamlet. In Tibet! And it works and it’s new.

The Incredibles (2004)

*. The Incredibles was a big hit for Pixar at a time when they were a studio that couldn’t go wrong. It spawned a sequel and is still fondly remembered by many. Looking at it with fresh eyes (I didn’t see it when it came out, so mine are virgin) was its success justified?
*. Basically Mr. Incredible is a Superman-type hero who marries Elastigirl, who is stretchy like Reed Richards. They have three kids who also have superpowers: Violet can turn invisible and generate a protective forcefield, Dash is the Flash, and there’s a baby with so-far untapped potential.
*. After a legal meltdown (something similar would be used for the Marvel Civil War plotline) The Incredibles, now known as the Parrs, take up new identities as suburban nobodies. But Mr. Incredible still wants to play the hero and soon finds himself enlisted by a mystery man to do various jobs. Until it turns out that the mystery man is actually a supervillain with a grudge against Mr. Incredible, leading to a climactic battle that draws in the whole family.
*. Acknowledging that this isn’t the kind of thing I’m interested in, I have to say that even so the story let me down. I didn’t find anything about it interesting. The villain is a Bond rip-off (his base is even in a volcano), and aside from one scene where Elastigirl got caught in a series of doorways I didn’t think any of the action was imaginative or new.
*. I also didn’t care much for the animation. Lots of big eyes and plastic-looking faces that double-down on making the characters look like dolls (or toys). I actually found myself enjoying the end credits the most, which were done in the more traditional cel-animation style.
*. But then all superhero movies today are basically CGI animation anyway. The battle with the deathbot at the end here looks nearly exactly the same as the fight with the giant starfish creature at the end of The Suicide Squad. A blockbuster movie today is CGI. It’s not just a tool but what the medium of film has become.
*. Of course there is the usual family-friendly message to it all. They even hit you over the head with it at the end as Dash exclaims “I love my family!” And that’s fine as far as it goes. But I thought there was a more annoying subtext.
*. The point I think they want to make is that being different is good. This is much the same idea you get in Marvel movies. The X-Men, for example, have to overcome society’s prejudice against mutants. But then there’s the extra turn of the screw that wrecks everything. The mutants are actually homo superior (as Magneto has it). Difference isn’t just to be celebrated; being normal has to be despised.
*. This is very much the point being made here. The Incredibles try to fit in but normal life is so boring and normal people so awful. I mean, they aren’t just losers, but they’re bitter about it. They’re like Mr. Huff at the insurance company, or Dash’s teacher. But most of all they’re like the villainous Syndrome: the wannabe superhero who turns heel. He has no actual superpowers so he invents his own. But nerds aren’t allowed to crash the superhero club. That’s a genetic lottery, and normies have to stay in their lane.
*. Is this the sort of message a kids’ movie should be presenting? As I say, it’s one thing to say it’s OK to be different, but quite another to slag someone who is only average as being behind a sinister conspiracy of mediocrity.
*. There were also some stereotypes thrown in that made me shake my head. Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) seems not far removed from old-school ethnic humour. And why is Elastigirl upset about what her middle-aged ass looks like in spandex? If she can stretch herself into any shape she wants, why doesn’t she give herself a butt lift?
*. I did like the voice work of Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible and especially Holly Hunter as Elastigirl. And though I don’t care for the style of animation it’s certainly polished and easy to look at. So if it’s your thing then have it. But it’s not mine, and I’m not sure the messaging stands close examination.

30 Days of Night (2007)

*. Some opening text tells us we’re in Barrow, Alaska, where the sun goes down in the winter and then stays down for a month. A perfect vacation spot for vampires then. As their leader says on arrival “We should have come here ages ago.” This made me wonder how long these vampires had been alive, or undead, for. At one point centuries are mentioned. So why hadn’t they thought of this “ages ago”?
*. Maybe they just didn’t like the cold. And, in their defence, I don’t think any other vampires had thought of an active hibernation in the Arctic tunnel before. It took author Steve Niles to come up with the idea, which he pitched to various studios. After not getting any bites the story was picked up for a run of comic books which made it an easier sell. Sam Raimi, for one, was impressed and was originally slated to direct before taking a role as producer.
*. Fun facts: (1) Barrow is now known as Utqiagvik; (2) it actually experiences 66 days of polar night; (3) it has a population today of roughly 5,000 (not the 563 on the town sign).

*. Basically this is a zombie movie, as the vampires are undead flesh eaters (or vampire/zombie virus carriers) who can only be stopped by decapitation or extreme head trauma, and the survivors of the vampire/zombie onset do all the usual zombie-apocalypse stuff like barricading themselves indoors (“stay in your homes, lock your doors, and load your firearms!”) while the shit goes down outside. The action scenes also look a lot like what we got in 28 Days Later, which had come out five years earlier. Lots of that herky-jerky movement that helps sell the violence. Which is too bad, because there’s some decent gore here that I wish they had played straight.
*. Josh Hartnett (Eben) and Melissa George (Stella) are the cutest couple in Barrow, possibly ever. How could they be on the outs? So again with the cliché of the couple who are going their separate ways, though no one can understand why, brought back together by adversity. I seem to be seeing a lot of this lately. Totally by coincidence, because the movies I’ve been watching have all been made at different times. Sometimes that just happens.
*. This particular reconciliation is heavily weighted in Eben’s favour. Usually both parties admit to having made mistakes. Here it’s only Stella who says “I’m so sorry, baby. I should have never left you.” To which he has no reply. Apology accepted, I guess. Not that we have any idea what she’s talking about.
*. There are a lot of gaps like that in the plot. And I don’t think that’s a problem for the most part. I didn’t want to know any of the vampire back story, or who the guy was who arrived with them. In other places though it felt like big chunks of the film had been cut, leaving some confusing gaps. One case in particular is the scene where everyone is together in the diner and then the vampires attack and tear the town apart and then you see Eben and Stella coming back to the diner. It really feels like something’s missing there. Also I didn’t know why Eben’s asthma inhaler is introduced a couple of times and nothing at all is done with it. Maybe this is all explained in the comic book, which I haven’t read. So.
*. Another part that had me scratching my head was Stella pulling a gun and sticking it in the back of the Stranger’s head when Eben confronts him at the diner. Eben is impressed that someone working for the fire marshal’s office is packing. I wasn’t, but I was shocked at how quickly that escalated. Wasn’t Eben still in control of the situation? Was the Stranger armed? Pulling a gun on him like that seems like a huge overreaction, especially as Stella’s sure Eben could kick the Stranger’s ass.

*. I wish they hadn’t had the old man in there who was losing his marbles. He is the weakest link, and only introduced to give us an idiot to operate a bit of idiot-plot business. Why do they let him go to the bathroom by himself, telling him only not to flush toilet so he won’t make any noise? They know he’s not all there mentally. Being an idiot isn’t, or shouldn’t be, contagious.
*. Hartnett and George are young, attractive, and capable of looking very serious. That’s all they have to manage. Danny Huston, affecting a widow’s peak in homage to Lugosi, does quite well as his usual all-purpose, low-rent bad guy.
*. Huston’s character is called Marlow. I got that from the credits. Does anyone call him Marlow in the movie? It seems a literary sort of name for a critter that speaks some made-up language with little resemblance to English. I guess he was Marlow in the comic and we were just supposed to know that. That happens. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange never says where the movie’s title comes from. You’ll only know if you’ve read Burgess’s book.
*. Ah, movie magic. They weren’t shooting out in the cold, which may explain why you can’t see anyone’s breath, and why characters can get away hiding underneath houses for days without freezing to death. The film was shot in New Zealand, and that’s not real snow. It’s not even real night either, as it was mostly shot day-for-night.
*. Nevertheless, it does score some style points. I love the appearance of the death ship (at least that’s what I assume it is) that the vampires arrive on at the beginning. And the overhead shot of the town massacre is a nice touch. Hey, they were trying.
*. It’s easy to poke fun at a movie like this, but to be honest I really enjoyed it. It’s rough around the edges, but for a splatter flick it’s tense, tight, and comes with a fairly original premise. Not a classic then, but I can call it a guilty pleasure.

As You Like It (2006)


*. Look, I get it. You always have to find ways to make Shakespeare new. We’ve seen these plays transferred to every imaginable place and time: Victorian England, colonial Africa, Nazi Germany, 1930s Chicago. But doesn’t there have to be some kind of point?
*. A series of titles introduces us to the setting here, which is a treaty port in late nineteenth-century Japan. Things start with a bang, quite literally, as a squad of ninjas break into a kabuki performance to overthrow Duke Senior. But what does all of this add to our understanding of the play? And how well does the translation to this exotic environment work? Is Duke Senior a duke? A merchant? Who are these ruling families?
*. I can’t help but think that the change has been made just to indulge in some Japonaiserie. But even given this excuse, the nods to Japanese culture remain superficial. The film wasn’t shot in Japan. Few of the actors wear Japanese costumes. The only Asian actor with any lines is Paul Chan, who plays William: a tiny part that could, and probably should have been cut, wherein he is mocked and physically abused by Touchstone. The only other Asian actor is Nobuyuki Takano, the sumo wrestler who plays Charles, but all of Charles’s lines have been either cut or given to other actors.
*. So it isn’t a movie that has anything to say about Japan, or English mercantilism in the nineteenth century. Which leaves us with Shakespeare, again.
*. I really like the play, but I think it has to be approached a certain way. That way is not through realism. Shakespeare’s woods are enchanted places: the “green world” of magic, liberty, and transformation, where all the tensions initially introduced by the plot can be resolved. As You Like It is very much in this vein. Nothing that happens in the forest of Arden is remotely plausible, and attempts by a production to finesse the improbabilities can only go so far. That Orlando can’t recognize his beloved in her feeble disguise is just one example. Then there is the whole pastoral convention of an artificial country life, and the fairy-tale plot contrivances like everyone’s sudden conversion at the end. Given that there are no lions in England, or France, or Japan, why even bother showing us the lion scene and trying to make it look realistic? In the play it’s just described.
*. This is a problem because Kenneth Branagh really only has the one approach to Shakespeare, and that is through realism. I’m not talking about the mud and blood of Henry V that he burst on to the big screen with, but more his penchant for playing Shakespearean speech naturalistically. When you listen to his characters speaking he never wants you to feel like you’re listening to someone deliver lines. Everything is done to make the dialogue project as perfectly normal, fit for the dramatic situation. This isn’t a knock against him, but it is something that’s consistent through all his adaptations, and it shows his desire to ground the language of the plays in the rhythms of contemporary speech. Even if you just had the soundtrack, you’d know you were listening to a Branagh production because of how it sounds.
*. He’s consistent visually as well, though this isn’t as important. In particular he likes long takes, and is hooked on extended tracking shots and a circling camera. This is something that has become more pronounced in his movies as time has gone by. I thought it first became a bit too much in his Hamlet, and here it’s definitely overdone.
*. The long, circling camera movement in to Kevin Kline’s Jaques as he delivers his “All the world’s a stage” speech is one example. It’s a repeat of an earlier shot in the movie, and here it doesn’t add anything at all to the lines. It just seems as though Branagh can’t think of anything else interesting to do with his camera, but that he feels like he needs to be doing something. It seems to me he could have just let Kline play it without any adornment, but that’s just not where Branagh is as a filmmaker.
*. These kinds of decisions — the setting in Japan, the realistic or naturalistic presentation, the now predictable camera work — take all the wind out of the sails of what should be a breezy lark of a play. Even the score, by Branagh’s usual collaborator Patrick Doyle, doesn’t add anything this time out.
*. This is too bad because the young cast here is pretty good and I got the sense they weren’t being used well. A good example is Bryce Dallas Howard’s Rosalind. Howard is a decent actress, but her Rosalind is played wrong here, too giggly and giddy for the part. And without a dominant Rosalind the play has no rudder. I can only assume that such a characterization was Branagh’s decision. It actually plays against a loose convention of playing Rosalind, which often has her role taken by an older actress paired with a younger man as Orlando. This reflects the level of maturity Rosalind has in the play, which is mostly missing here.
*. I guess what I’m saying is that this is a movie that needed a lighter touch. It should have embraced the play’s spirit of artifice and fancy. The truest filmmaking is the most feigning.

WALL-E (2008)

*. When watching kids’ movies the question any reviewer (or just casual notetaker) has to answer is whether their response should be based on how much they enjoyed/appreciated it or how much they think a kid would. In recent years, however, that distinction has come to be effectively elided by the rise in “kidult” entertainment, meaning books and movies aimed at both audiences.
*. I’ve written before about how much I despise the whole idea or cult of kidult (see my notes on Gnomeo and Juliet and The Lego Batman Movie). One of the people most responsible for it, or at least most successful at it, is the writer-director Andrew Stanton, who had a hand in such blockbusters as Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo. Not that I’m hating on Stanton for this. He’s someone who found his niche and struck gold in it.
*. So instead of looking at this movie from either a kid’s or an adult’s perspective WALL-E requires a double vision. I think kids liked it. There’s lots going on and even some music. For adults there are deeper layers. Or maybe not layers so much as Easter eggs. Like AUTO’s red eye being a reference to HAL from 2001, or the way WALL-E’s fire extinguisher blasts ejaculate on EVE as they do their space dance. I have to admit I did not recognize Sigourney Weaver supplying the voice of the ship’s computer, so some of this stuff is pitched at a pretty high fan level indeed.
*. But kidult also has a leveling effect on any deeper messaging. In particular Stanton claimed not to have had any political  or environmental agenda. Indeed, the only point of WALL-E finding a plant was that it would symbolize the robot’s own determined perseverance. I don’t know how much to credit this, as the notion of Earth being covered in garbage by a soulless one-world corporate government is inescapably political, but maybe Stanton didn’t want to seem preachy or rock any boats.
*. Was Stanton also drawing on the robots left to tend the greenhouse ship by themselves at the end of Silent Running? He doesn’t mention that film on his DVD commentary so I wasn’t sure. I’ve also heard that the human grubs on the Axiom were inspired by the underground citizens of E. M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops,” but I don’t know if that was a conscious borrowing.

*. The story strikes me as weak and poorly structured. It just sort of moves from stage to stage without building much interest. I like the way humans have devolved into giant, seemingly boneless babies carried about on their automated strollers, dressed in onesies, and sucking from Super Big Gulp bottles. But this also made them far less interesting as characters. I wasn’t at all invested in the Captain’s transformation, and the way the shipboard audience cheers him on in his final struggle with AUTO struck me as a cheap trick, like a laugh track.
*. It does look great and they obviously put a lot of work into realizing WALL-E and EVE as characters without giving them mouths. They act mainly with their eyes. According to Stanton they studied the films of Chaplin and Keaton to learn how to do the comic bits with no dialogue. I guess it worked. But to be honest, this struck me as a movie that was more cute than funny.
*. Gender stereotypes are also pretty obvious. Not because male WALL-E is square and EVE smooth and ovoid, but because he’s a blue-collar working dude and she’s a highly educated professional woman with lots of girl power in her rocket arms. But of course when it’s time to get broody with a baby she’s ready to settle down in the best rom-com fashion.
*. The main takeaway for me is that beyond the rich look of the movie I didn’t think anything else about it was all that special. I wasn’t sure if Stanton even had much interest in anything beyond the look. He wanted to juxtapose the future with a lot of retro stuff because he’d never seen that done before (which is kind of hard to believe). Hence Chaplin and Keaton and Hello, Dolly! But do these go together, or comment on each other in any meaningful way? As noted, he didn’t want the film to carry any particular political message. He thought the big theme was how “irrational love defeats life’s programming,” but I wasn’t even sure that was a theme at all. EVE does follow her programming for the most part, doesn’t she?
*. The box office and critical reception suggests that both kids and adults liked what they saw, but as with most if not all kidult entertainment I thought it was thin gruel. I wonder if anyone is going to be watching movies like this forty or fifty years from now, when we may still be watching Buster Keaton and maybe even Hello, Dolly! I wouldn’t be putting my money on the robots lasting as long.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

*. People like to complain about the Marvelization of the movie business in the twenty-first century but what they may really mean is the Disneyfication. This doesn’t have anything to do with a preponderance of animated family fare but rather refers to franchise entertainment writ very, very large. Like the productions of Marvel (bought by Disney in 2009), and Star Wars (bought by Disney in 2012) and all Disney’s homegrown franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean et al. Basically buy or create intellectual property and then keep squeezing those oranges for all they’re worth.
*. Later, with the launch of their Disney+ streaming service, this became not just a business model but a necessity, with the step from franchises to serials turning out to be a small one in the case of properties like Marvel and Star Wars. How well it all works out in the end is anybody’s guess, but the early evidence seems to point to a certain level of exhaustion being reached. You can squeeze any orange dry.
*. A case in point is National Treasure. This was an unexpected hit in 2004, leading to an inevitable (if initially unplanned) sequel. But the idea hadn’t been original in the first place, and already by part two it feels exhausted. So much so that it struck me as one of the most slavish rehashings I can remember. They brought back the same writers and same director and assembled the same gang (even Harvey Keitel returns as the FBI agent chasing them) to go looking for another buried treasure by following a bunch of obscure clues.
*. There’s a meme, because memes are cool. Instead of “I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence” we have “I’m gonna kidnap the President of the United States.” And the final reveal of the city of gold looks like it was cut and paste from National Treasure, right down to those flaming runnels that function as a light switch. They really weren’t even trying.
*. The plot though is even sillier than the first movie. Roger Ebert spent most of his review cataloguing all of its absurdities before finally saying that “The person who attends National Treasure: Book of Secrets expecting logic and plausibility is on a fool’s mission. This is a Mouth Agape Movie, during which your mouth hangs open in astonishment at one preposterous event after another. This movie’s plot doesn’t play tennis without a net, but also without a ball and a racket. It spins in its own blowback. And, no, I don’t know what that means, but this is the kind of movie that makes you think of writing it.”
*. Ebert also flagged how the cast promised something more. Sean Bean is replaced by Ed Harris, which is no drop-off, but his character is some kind of vanilla villain who isn’t a villain at all in the end. Helen Mirren as Ben’s mom is along for the ride as well, but she’s unnecessary in terms of the plot and is just there for the happy ending. In my notes on Greenland I registered how stupid the Hollywood plot of divorced or separated couples being brought back together by having to go through some trial was. Well here we get not one but two such instances, with Ben’s mom and dad reconciling while Ben (Nicolas Cage) and Abigail (Diane Kruger) also begin by being on the outs only to reunite on the treasure quest.
*. This would still be OK if the movie were more thrilling just on the level of your usual amusement-park ride stuff. But it isn’t. I wasn’t interested for a minute in what was going on, and the goofy local charm of the first movie is left behind as they go full Tomb Raider.
*. So, like the Pirates of the Caribbean, which was in its own needlessly prolonged death spiral at the time, the franchise was just being squeezed dry. But it made a mountain of money, even more than the first movie, so a third film was immediately announced. That project would, however, be stuck for years in development hell, and as of this writing has yet to appear. Meanwhile, a series was announced for Disney+. Because this is the way the money’s made.

National Treasure (2004)

*. National Treasure is a movie I’d always thought I’d seen, but watching it today I realize I was mistaken. At least I think this was my first time. Though given how generic a movie it is, I’m not sure if I’d just forgotten it completely.
*. Critics were dismissive but box office was huge, leading to a sequel, with a third part reported to be in the works. In general, audiences seem to have really liked it. What accounts for the discrepancy?
*. I don’t think reviewers liked it because of the generic quality I mentioned. Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is Indiana Jones for the new millennium. Or Lara Croft (2001/2003). Or Robert Langdon (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code had been published the year before, though the movie was still a couple of years away). He’s the adventurous explorer type looking for a secret treasure of the Templars, which was passed down through the Freemasons and squirreled away by America’s Founding Fathers. The key to its location is provided by a secret code written on the back of a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
*. That’s boiler-plate adventure nonsense and none of it makes a lick of sense. But the notion of the Declaration of Independence being a kind of secular scripture, an American Ark of the Covenant, had some attraction at least with domestic audiences, and the recognizable but not shopworn locations are a plus.
*. But while critics yawned the public was pleased. Maybe it was the magic pixie dust of Disney. No bad language. No violence. I believe only the one unfortunate soul actually dies, and that by accident. It’s family entertainment. Even the romance angle between Gates and museum director Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) is kept chaste. When they’re using heat (heavy breathing) and lemon oil to reveal the code and say to each other “we need more juice” and “we need more heat” it’s the closest thing to innuendo the script is going to toss out. And it’s also my favourite scene in the movie.

*. That simplicity I think is the movie’s charm. Also the fact that they keep the action simple. This is no bloated CGI-fest but a movie that mainly gets by on simple stunts and effects. People run down streets and across rooftops, and swing on ropes. It’s old school, which was something I really enjoyed too.
*. Still, it’s a hard movie to get excited about. Cage wasn’t yet in full Cage-mode and comes across as just goofy. I thought this made the presence of the comic sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha) superfluous, but at least he’s there for the ride. Kruger is ridiculously glam for her job, but looks intelligent and no-nonsense enough. Sean Bean seemed thoroughly bored being typecast as the vapid British villain who is just some rich guy who wants the treasure because whatever. Harvey Keitel, playing the FBI agent, shares that same air of indifference. Jon Voight plays Cage’s dad and at least he’s not as annoying and affected as he usually is.
*. In short, there’s nothing offensive about it, but nothing memorable, original, or particularly well done either. It doesn’t take any chances and so doesn’t fail in any significant regard. That it was such a hit suggests a real demand for such modest and inoffensive fare. A demand Disney would be only to happy to meet with more of the same.

Bad Santa (2003)

*. There is a Christmas story archetype wherein a nasty fellow — call him Ebenezer Scrooge, or the Grinch — is transformed and redeemed by the holiday spirit. That’s all that’s happening in Bad Santa, as safecracker Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is a scrawny, foul-mouthed alcoholic and incontinent ass-man who pairs up with dwarf assistant Marcus (Tony Cox) to play Santa and one of his elves in shopping mall department stores over the Christmas season, and then later using their position as an in to break into the mall after hours.
*. That’s all there is to it. So give Billy Bob Thornton credit for pulling the part of Bad Santa — “an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santy Claus” — off. He’s sleazy, but he sells us on the notion of a man who has truly bottomed out, if not on why any store would hire such an obvious derelict. I think his main draw is that he works cheap, but even so I think most malls have standards. Then again, Lauren Graham’s Sue doesn’t have much in the way of standards either. Or else that’s just one hell of a Santa fetish that’s riding her.
*. Thornton is the funny guy here though, in a movie where the humour mostly consists of hearing Santa drop loads of f-bombs. Tony Cox is just a sidekick. Bernie Mac shows up as a crooked security chief but I didn’t find him funny at all. He’s just here to be dislikeable. And John Ritter, in his last role, is little more than a cameo. So f-bombs away! And crotch shots. There’s one scene where everyone just goes around punching each other in the nuts. And I have to admit, I was laughing out loud. Some days you just need to see a bit of that.

*. This was a time when we were between waves of PC culture, so a lot of the humour would probably be cut today, leaving not much else. There’s a boy who is apparently mentally challenged in some way. There’s an aggressive gay guy who tries to beat Thornton up outside a bar. The bad people are all Black or Asian. And yet none of this struck me as offensive because it’s not mean-spirited like a lot of other “dark” Christmas movies. And the fact is that Santa is such piece of crap he’s basically just white trash anyway.
*. Rest assured though that the Christmas spirit will triumph, and that there will be a positive message at the end about having to stand up for yourself, even if that means administering another crotch shot. In the last twenty years it’s a movie that’s even gone on to become a bit of a holiday classic, even spawning a belated and unsuccessful sequel in 2016.
*. Like most oddities, it couldn’t really be duplicated (though I wasn’t that disappointed with the sequel). Thornton was far from the first, and hardly the most obvious choice for Willie, but he works. Terry Zwigoff’s slightly alt-flavoured approach also paid off unexpectedly. And, as noted, it came out at a time when it could get away with a lot more than it could today. Which is probably the main reason it has held up as well as it has.

Doubt (2008)

*. It’s not always a good thing when a movie takes you somewhere you’re not expecting. A good example is Doubt, which I thought was building up to the ironic reveal that young Jimmy Hurley — the stand-in for writer-director John Patrick Shanley — was the one actually being abused by Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But, and here’s an anti-spoiler alert, that’s not what happens. Which is a pity, because I think that would have made for a much more interesting twist than the ending we do get, which is unexpectedly weak.
*. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) has her doubts. Maybe not so much about Father Flynn, but about the Church and the winds of change that are roaring through it, knocking down branches and elderly nuns. As a theme, this is less than I was expecting, and I wasn’t the only one to be disappointed. Peter Bradshaw found Streep’s final speech “stagey” (not the word I’d use) and “beyond absurdity.” He also thought the movie as a whole “a terminally muddled piece of star-studded Oscar-bait.”
*. At least the Oscar-bait part was true enough. Doubt received five nominations total, four of them in acting categories. Didn’t win any though.

*. Critics were divided into those who saw it merely as Oscar-bait and those who, well, took that bait. I put myself more in the former category. The acting was nothing special. Streep’s Bronx Irish accent comes and goes. Hoffman doesn’t suggest any hidden depths. Amy Adams is too innocent.
*. Viola Davis is good, but mainly because she’s given the one really good scene (it’s her only scene) to work with. It opens a window, however briefly, on a moment of profound moral ambiguity. She gives us a far more authentic character than Streep’s caricature, but at the end of the day she’s only a bit player in the drama.
*. Produced by Miramax and Scott Rudin Productions. Hm. Hollywood is an ironic place.

*. Based on Shanley’s play of the same name (or near enough, Doubt: A Parable), so of course it’s talky. And shot by Roger Deakins so it looks swell. But it just doesn’t engage as much as it should. Except for Davis’s Mrs. Miller there are no depths here to be plumbed. I’ve said how Sister Aloysius is a caricature and I would have liked more on the question of whether she’s a shepherd or a cat hunting a mouse. Father Flynn is shuffled off stage, which seems a repetition of historical errors made by the Church. Shanley doesn’t want us to judge him, so makes judgment impossible. Indeed, we can’t even judge Streep’s suspicious mind. The children are voiceless.
*. You can’t see this as a movie that has anything to say about the Catholic Church and child sexual abuse. Instead it’s a movie that, I think, is about questioning authority. Except it doesn’t seem to want to go there either. I’m not sure where it does want to go. There are glimmers of a better movie here but they remain roads not taken. You can only play ambiguity, or doubt, for so long before you have to offer something more. I honestly left this movie having no idea about how Shanley felt about any of this, aside from his nostalgic affection for Sister James. That doesn’t seem like a strong hook to hang such a story from.