Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Movie Review: "National Treasure"

As those of you who know me can attest, I am a HUGE movie fan. So, I thought I would start posting reviews of movies I've seen lately. Starting last year, I stopped reading critics' reviews. I wondered if they didn't predispose me to like or dislike a movie. Plus I figured that I am at least as capable of forming an opinion as to the worth (or lack thereof) of a given movie and then articulating that opinion.

This holiday weekend I saw National Treasure starring Nicholas Cage (The Rock, Con-Air), Diane Kruger (Troy), Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Patriot Games), Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music), Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home) and directed by Jon Turtletaub (While You Were Sleeping).

I'll be the first to admit that my expectations for this movie were very low. From watching the trailers, I assumed this was another big budget Hollywood monstrosity, long on effects and short on dialogue. I am happy to say I was pleasantly surprised.

While the movie is an action flick, it doesn't commit the two cardinal sins of action movies. First, it doesn't try to wring suspense out of each and every frame. For awhile in the 1990s it seemed as if Hollywood had adopted a philosophy that if one or two cliffhangers were good in a movie, then why not 17? Examples of this phenomenon are the Cage vehicle Con-Air, and Wolfgang Petersen's Air Force One. It seemed as if Hollywood had collectively forgotten that in order to create suspense, you need to give the audience a breather. So, I was relieved that while, yes, there are suspenseful moments, there aren't too many of them.

Second, Treasure doesn't rely on special effects at the expense of a solid script and a decent story. Cage plays treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates. As a boy, Ben is told by his grandfather (Plummer) of a mythical treasure. Grandpa Gates enthralls young Ben with a story of King Solomon's gold, discovered by crusading knights in the Middle Ages. The treasure consists not only of priceless gems, jewels and objets d'art, but scrolls and volumes from the lost Library of Alexandria.

The knights decide that the treasure is too valuable for any one man to possess. So they form the order of the Knights Templar to guard it. Later (presumably to escape upheaval in Europe), the treasure is transported to the colonies where it comes under the protection of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The last of the guardians dies before he can pass on the one remaining clue as to the treasure's whereabouts to President Andrew Jackson. With his last breath, he passes on the clue to his coachman - Gates' ancestor. The men of the Gates family have spent the intervening years in a fruitless search for the horde. I won't summarize the rest of the movie since I don't want to give anything away. Suffice to say most of the movie is Gates deciphering the clues and searching for the treasure, one step ahead of bad guy Ian Howe (Bean), Gates' former patron and partner in his quest.

Along the way, Gates is joined by Dr. Abigail Chase (Kruger), a curator from the National Archives. Chase also doubles as Gates' love interest. I was glad that the romantic subplot didn't overshadow the main narrative. Also assisting Gates is his research assistant, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha). Poole is a wise-cracking slacker cum computer genius. Normally, I'm not that fond of these kind of archetypes, but Bartha gave an enjoyable performance. Judging from the reaction of the audience, I think most of us agreed. His lines drew the most laughs.

Again, I don't want to give too much away. For what it's worth, I found the movie to be just the right mix of action, humor, mystery, romance and suspense.

Let me know what you think!

Monday, November 22, 2004

Long time, no blog.

Wow. It's been over a month since I posted anything. And that period encompasses the election!

Well, since last we blogged, I returned home from Melbourne, Australia. I went down to Recife, Brasil, for my birthday (October 13) to hang out with my girl, Ana. Previously, I would have described her as my fiancee. Truth be told, I don't think it's going to happen. She is very young and reluctant to move. She has so far been unwilling to discuss custody of her son with either her son's father or a lawyer. So we're in limbo, for now.

I returned to the US on October 14. I spent the following week working downtown at the CA Support Desk. The Support Desk is the help desk that people from consular sections all over the world call for technical help. People like me take turns taking shifts downtown to share our experience from the field with the guys that work the desk. After that I took off for Mozambique.

I left for Maputo on November 1 and flew to Frankfurt, had a long layover, flew to Johannesburg, had a short layover and arrived in Maputo on the afternoon on November 3rd. I caught some of CNN's early morning election coverage in the Baobab Lounge in the Johannesburg airport. It was around mid-morning, so it would have been after 3:00 am in the studio. At that point, it was still close, still undecided but things were looking good for Bush. I had missed all the early exit poll drama! By the time I got to work Thursday morning, Kerry had conceded and all was right in the world. Pheww!

Maputo was all right. Definitely in the "better-than-I-would-have-thought" category. We stayed at an old, colonial hotel, the Polana. It looks out over the Indian Ocean (the Mozambique Channel, as the stretch between the coast and Madagascar is known) and is quite nice. The weather this time of year is quite warm. The hotel had a gym and tennis courts, so one of my colleagues and I hit some balls.

Our first (and only) weekend we went on an outing to Kruger Park, South Africa. Kruger is very large and pretty famous. (I always think of Marlon Perkins and "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" when I think of it.) We spent most of Saturday driving around the park. We were lucky and saw the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, water buffalo) that first day. We stayed at a nice lodge right at the gates of the park. We were up early the next morning for a game drive. After breakfast, we headed back to Maputo.

We worked all that week and then flew out Saturday afternoon, arriving back in Washington on Sunday afternoon. I'll be posting pictures from Kruger on Ofoto later. My next trip is to Sofia, Bulgaria on Dec. 7th.