Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
Jon Turtletaub´s National Treasure: Book of Secrets reteams much of the cast and crew of the 2004´s National Treasure for virtually the same film; a grand-scale mediocrity that defies logic and plausibility but looks like it was a lot of fun to make. And it´s fun to watch, too, to some degree; you can´t make any sense of it – and don´t even try to think about it, but you can certainly sit there in a kind of stupor and let the preposterous events and scenic locations and talented actors wash over you. If you liked the original, than I can’t imagine you wouldn´t like this sequel. In fact, it´s a bit better. I think. Or maybe it´s just more recent.
Nicolas Cage returns as treasure hunter Benjamin Gates, whose good family name is threatened when Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) produces a page from John Wilkes Booth´s diary that identifies Gates´ great-grandfather as a co-conspirator to the Lincoln assassination. So to clear the family name, Gates, father Patrick (Jon Voight), mother Emily (Helen Mirren), estranged wife Abigail (Diane Kruger) and sidekick Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) follow a series of clues that eventually lead them to the mythical Olmec City of Gold (whose ridiculous location I will not spoil). I started wondering around the time they started looking for the city of gold: how is this going to clear the Gates´ family name? Well, don´t ask the filmmakers; as the film concluded, I was still left wondering. But this is the kind of film where they wrote the key scenes first – a presidential kidnapping, thefts at Buckingham Palace and the Oval Office – and then strung them together in the least plausible scenarios imaginable (yes, an Easter Egg Hunt somehow gains them entry to the Oval Office). If things don´t make any sense in the end, well judging from box office receipts, this apparently isn´t a requirement of the target demographic. Still, its fun in the end, as the film turns in these ridiculous ideas with a wink-wink fervor. They´re no prime examples of what any movie should strive to be, but the National Treasure films achieve something the wretched Da Vinci Code sorely missed out on: that old standby, escapist entertainment. Hitchcock could´ve worked wonders here.
With a superstar cast, a game director in Mike Nichols, and a wickedly satirical script courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, Charlie Wilson´s War seems to have everything going for it. But there´s one fatal flaw: it´s too short. Based on the purportedly true story of the titular character (played by Tom Hanks), a Democratic Congressman from Texas’ second district who liked women and alcohol and somehow managed to lead a campaign to deliver $1 billion of aid to the Afghan resistance in their fight against invading Russian forces. We know what eventually happened in Afghanistan, but the rise of the Taliban is something that the film deftly sidesteps; the country in need of aid could have been anywhere and the movie would still work – knowing what happened to the country afterwards just doubles the razor-sharp irony. Hanks is superb as the Texan senator with a thick southern drawl, but Phillip Seymour Hoffman steals the show as Gust Avrakotos (yes, the film has a lot of fun pronouncing his name too), the no-bullshit CIA agent who helps Wilson get his financing. Julia Roberts, however, as Joanne Herring, the wealthy socialite who initially urges Wilson to help Afghanistan, isn´t given much to do; one wonders why they chose an actor of her caliber for the role. Sorkin´s script takes a number of shots of politics and most of them hit dead-on; we´ve come a long way since Capra´s vision of Washington, D.C. I only wish the film took it´s time; it often feels rushed, and though this can be understood from writer Sorkin´s standpoint – he had his greatest successes on television, with Sports Night and The West Wing – it truly brings the film down a notch.
Julian Schnabel´s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French fashion magazine Elle, who became paralyzed with “locked-in syndrome” after having a stroke in 1995 – unable to speak, move, or communicate with his loved ones, trapped inside his own mind like the hero of Trumbo´s Johnny Got His Gun – left with control only over one of his eyelids. Yet with that eyelid, blink-by-blink and letter-by-letter, he was able to painstakingly dictate his memoirs, which were novelized and published in 1997 – shortly after Bauby´s death. Schnabel´s film is not so much an adaptation of Bauby´s memoirs as it is a story of the incredible efforts that went into taking them; it´s an incredible journey, and for much of the film we´re locked inside Bauby´s mind, as he narrates the agonizing situation the stroke has left him in, unable to communicate it with anyone but us. And yet, the film is anything but depressing, or tragic: Bauby still finds humor in his situation, and his determination and outlook is nothing short of life-affirming. So incredibly tangible that we want to reach out and communicate with the characters in the film – of course, just like Bauby, we cannot. Though he´s immobilized throughout most of the film, Mathieu Amalric is incredible as Bauby. Direction and other technical aspects are flawless, including frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski´s tone-perfect cinematography. One of the very best films of 2007.
NOTE: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is in French, subtitled in Czech on Prague screens.