DVD Tuesday: ‘National Treasure 2’, ‘Diary of the Dead’

by W. Andrew Powell

Nicolas Cage in National Treasure 2: Book of SecretsAmerican history gets the adventure treatments once again in the often dizzyingly surreal National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets launches Ben Gates into another search for lost treasure as he also tries to clear his ancestor’s name from the plot to kill President Lincoln. Also arriving this week is the zombie-driven horror Diary of the Dead, futuristic anime in Vexille, the 80s hit comedy Short Circuit, and the first season of 24.

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets
Anyone who has seen the first National Treasure could probably see the sequel coming a mile away. With its America-centric storyline, action, and comedy, it was an easy choice for movie-goers who didn’t mind a film that took certain liberties with history to invent larger than life adventure.

What made the original so much fun however was the way the storyline connected the dots, drawing our heroes along for a ride that took them to an assortment of historical sites where hidden relics pointed to a final treasure. While National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets follows a similar concept, there is a feeling that the filmmakers are hurrying us along, forgetting the importance of those all too essential connecting dots.

Nicolas Cage returns as Ben Gates, a history genius with a knack for getting in trouble, along with Justin Bartha as his good friend turned conspiracy writer, Riley Poole, and Diane Kruger as Ben’s ex-girlfriend, Abigail Chase. They are sucked into a new treasure hunt when Mitch Wilkinson, played by Ed Harris, reveals a page from the diary of President Lincoln that suggests the Gates family was involved in John Wilkes Booth’s assassination plot.

Through more than a few leaps in logic, the group plots a complex path that involves kidnapping the President, breaking into the Queen’s study at Buckingham Palace, and finding the lost city of gold.

If that sounds needlessly complicated, you might be right, but the greatest flaw in the film is the way it seems to arbitrarily connect the storyline together. There are reasons each piece fits together, and they all make a kind of sense, but half way through the film I wondered if the whole storyline was actually the result of a wager between two writers who wanted to see how far they could stretch the story.

Despite its flaws, Book of Secrets is still a fun film, and much like an episode of The Simpsons, it’s amusing to see where the story takes everyone next and how they can somehow have it make sense. Director Jon Turtletaub provides exciting scenes, with a few key elements that really pop out of the story, especially when it comes to the devices the group finds and all the secrets.

George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead
His name is right there in the movie’s title: George A. Romero. His horror films are cult favorites that have inspired multiple generations of gory filmmakers, and in Diary of the Dead he gives us yet another sampling of his vision of the dead things that want to eat our flesh.

Revisiting the first night it all went wrong, Diary of the Dead is an alternate look at the events during Night of the Living Dead, through the camera lenses of film students trying to survive. The group is making their own cheesy horror movie when a report on the radio suggests that something seriously weird is going on. Together, they will try to find a haven from the hordes of the dead who are killing everyone in their path.

The one truly unique element to Diary of the Dead is the way it’s told Blair Witch style, but offering perhaps a little bit more in terms of style. Much like Romero’s previous films, the point is really a commentary, this time on the YouTube culture that has gripped youth culture. Unfortunately for Romero though, his commentary lacks any real teeth, and by the end of the film you have to really wonder what he wanted to say.

Other new DVDs this week…

Anime films are a clever breed of animated filmmaking that allows for really creative storytelling, but while Vexille is certainly clever, it’s perhaps just not clever enough to avoid getting mired in its own weakest moments.

Set in 2077, 10 years after Japan sealed itself off from the rest of the world following strict international laws that outlawed certain robotic technology, the film is about a special group sent in to the country to find out what is really going on behind the borders. Inside, the agents discover that the lines between humanity and machines have blurred beyond belief.

Vexille certainly looks great, has a lot of wonderful visuals, and some really rich concepts. About halfway through though, it’s impossible to shake the fact that those ideas just weren’t developed far enough, and the writers coasted to an ending that is neither worthwhile, nor imaginative.

Short Circuit
Johnny 5, that unforgettable robot from the 80s, is back and he just wants the government to leave him alone. Known as Number 5 to them, he comes alive when he is hit by lightning, but the government wants to get him back for fear that he will attack people. Co-starring Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg, the film was a huge hit when it was first released, and is a great family movie.

Strange Wilderness
One of the most universally unliked films released in 2008, Strange Wilderness is an adult comedy about a troupe of losers trying to make a hit nature show that lives by its own rules. While the movie may be funny to some, it earned negative reviews from nearly every well-known critic and if that wasn’t enough for you, it was directed by the same guy who wrote Joe Dirt.

Television on DVD…

24: Season 1
As a Johnny-come-lately to the 24 scene, I have to admit I can’t believe I didn’t start watching the show sooner. Starring Kiefer Sutherland as super-CIA agent Jack Bauer, 24 is a taut action series complete with rogue agents, troubled family members, dark plot turns, and an unwavering sense that there is always more happening than what we see.

Launched originally in 2001, the show has a huge following, has received numerous award nominations, and features a stunning cast. The drama and the actions scenes are also perfectly interspersed, making for a show that actually knows how to pull off legitimate acting alongside bullets and explosions.

With its clever editing, each season of 24 drops the audience into a day in Jack Bauer’s life, with each episode covering a real hour in the story. In season one, Jack has to uncover the truth behind the plot to kill a Presidential candidate while he also deals with his shaky marriage, the disappearance of his daughter, and a possible mole within his group.

The boxed set includes some great extras including an alternate ending to the season finale, documentary on the making of the series, extended episodes, deleted scenes, and commentary on the first and last episodes.

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