Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb


Even Ben Stiller's flashlight isn't enough to make up for the light that left us when Robin Williams passed away.

Even Ben Stiller’s flashlight isn’t enough to make up for the light that left us when Robin Williams passed away.

(2014) Family Adventure (Paramount) Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Dan Stevens, Ben Kingsley, Rebel Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Rami Malek, Skyler Gisondo, Patrick Gallagher, Mizuo Peck, Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Andrea Martin, Rachael Harris, Brad Garrett (voice), Anjali Jay, Regina Taufen (voice). Directed by Shawn Levy

Some movies can be extremely poignant and bring a tear even to the most heartless of people. Sometimes movies are lent extra poignancy by real life circumstances.

Things at the Museum of Natural History in New York City couldn’t be going better. They’ve added a brand new planetarium and opening night is a dazzling affair. Larry Daley (Stiller) has set up quite the soiree with President Theodore Roosevelt (Williams), Attila the Hun (Gallagher) and Sacajawea (Peck) leading the way, along with some animated constellations and Trixie the T-Rex. However, things go terribly wrong; Attila and the Huns (sounds like a great name for a garage band) attack indiscriminately, Teddy reads lines from his nephew Franklin and the exhibits who have come to life basically aren’t acting like themselves.

Ahkmenrah (Malek) whose tablet possesses the magic to keep his son living, discovers that the tablet is corroding somehow but it seems to be tied in to the issues that the exhibits are having. He isn’t quite sure why it is corroding now nor how to stop it; the one who really knows about the tablet is his dad Merenkahre (Kingsley) who happens to be in the British Museum.

So it is that Larry heads to London, taking with him Akhmenrah and Teddy – as well as Sacajawea, Attila and the tiny cowboy Jebediah (Wilson) and Roman legionnaire Octavius (Coogan) and Dexter, the mischievous Capuchin monkey. They seek out dear old dad who tells them that the tablet needs moonlight in order to recharge; like a battery, the tablet is corroding. Seems a simple enough fix.

Of course not. The vainglorious Sir Lancelot (Stevens) has seen the magic properties of the tablet and figures out that this is the Holy Grail he was sent to find and he can thus bring it back to Camelot and claim Guinevere to be his very own. The rest of them need the tablet to continue being reanimated at night; without it they’ll be permanent wax figures and thus the chase is on with the stakes being incredibly high.

I haven’t had a real love affair with this series but neither have I particularly hated it either. All three of the movies in the franchise I have found to be competently done entertainment. Many critics have lamented the waste of talent and I can’t say as I don’t disagree but for what the film is intended to be, it is successful.

There are moments that are the highlights of the series, as the penultimate scene that takes place on the roof when Dexter is stricken. There is some real tenderness in that moment and when Dexter whimpers it was a real shot to the heart and some of the more tender-hearted kids in the audience reacted so you might want to be sure your kids can handle an animal in distress, or the grieving that comes with impending loss. Other moments of grace include bringing back the trio of security guards (Van Dyke, Cobb and Rooney) who initiated the events of the movie originally.

There are also moments that remind me why I never warmed to the series in the first place, like Larry having a conversation about parenting with Laa (also Stiller), a caveman who seems to understand what Larry is saying but through a much simpler filter. Also Dexter saves Octavius and Jebediah from a lava flow in Pompeii by relieving himself on the lava – and on the figures. Nice.

While the chemistry between Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan is genuine, the same is not true for the rest of the cast. Mostly it seems very much like a paycheck rather than a passion project and for good reason. As much as the highbrow aim is to educate as well as entertain, they really don’t do very much of the former whenever they have a chance for the latter. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but when the humor is as unmemorable as the humor is here, there’s a problem. Rebel Wilson, for example, who plays an oversexed and dimwitted British security guard, is utilized poorly.

There is a vibe of finality to the film which isn’t entirely due to the movie itself; the passing of Williams and Rooney adds to that feeling. We are in essence saying good-bye to both of them which adds to the poignancy of the final scenes. While I was entertained in places and touched in others however, the movie isn’t cohesive enough to really keep my interest for the full length of the movie. Like an under-powered train chugging into the engine with its fuel exhausted, the franchise barely has enough in it to make it through the shortest running time of any of its films. Worth seeing? More or less but more to say goodbye to two of the greatest to ever walk onto a sound stage than for anything onscreen.

REASONS TO GO: Very touching in some places, especially on the British Museum rooftop. A nice way to say farewell to Mickey Rooney and Robin Williams.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretty generic and bland. Humor is of the lowest common denominator sort.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly foul language, a bit of peril and some humor of the pee-pee doo-doo kind.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Nick (Larry’s son) was played by Jake Cherry in the first two films; Gisondo plays him here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mannequin
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Force Majeure

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The Adventures of Tintin


The Adventures of Tintin

Tintin maps out his next move.

(2011) Family Adventure (Paramount) Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Tony Curran, Gad Elmaleh, Mackenzie Crook, Daniel Mays, Kim Stengel, Sebastian Roche, Cary Elwes, Phillip Rhys, Ron Bottitta, Joe Starr. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

The children of Europe may be more familiar with Tintin than the children of the United States but growing up he was a favorite of mine and my sister’s. Created by Hergé (the nom de plume of Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi) in 1929, Tintin became a European sensation and a symbol of Belgian national pride until his run came to an end in 1976. Tintin continues to be hugely popular across the pond and while he did make some impact here in the States, his popularity is essentially centered in Europe.

Tintin (Bell) is a young reporter with a nose for news and an aptitude for trouble. He and his dog Snowy are roaming a local market when a model ship catches Tintin’s eye. When he buys it, a pair of gentlemen attempt to buy it away from him with one giving him a dire warning about danger from people “who don’t play nice.” That proves to be true.

The two buyers turn out to be Sakharine (Craig), a professorial and urbane villain and Barnaby (Starr), an Interpol agent who gets shot on Tintin’s doorstep. Tintin’s detective buddies, Thomson (Pegg) and Thompson (Frost) are on the case but they seem more interested in finding a serial pickpocket (Jones) than anything else.

Shortly thereafter Tintin gets kidnapped by Sakharine’s flunkies Alan (Mays) and Ernie (Crook) and brought aboard a dilapidated freighter where Tintin meets Captain Haddock (Serkis), the nominal master of the vessel whose ship has been stolen by Sakharine who paid off his crew and the crucial piece in the puzzle of the location of a fabulous pirate treasure and a centuries-old grudge.

This movie has been long-gestating with Spielberg, a long time avowed Tintin fan. Spielberg approached Peter Jackson of the Lord of the Rings movies to see about creating a CGI Snowy; Jackson in turn persuaded Spielberg to go the motion capture route (although ironically Snowy is a CGI creation). Jackson, also a Tintin fan from childhood, remained involved as a producer, a role he will exchange with Spielberg when the sequel is made once Jackson is through filming the two Hobbit movies he’s currently involved with.

Motion capture has had a checkered box office history with such films as The Polar Express, Beowulf and Mars Needs Moms. Tintin is already a box office success after doing tremendous business in Europe where it was released in late October 2011. American box office has been, in its first weekend of release somewhat tepid although it was never expected to be greeted with the same enthusiasm it was elsewhere in the world.

The look and feel is very much of an Indiana Jones film (which kind of brings Spielberg full circle) with a side dish of The Goonies and a heaping helping of Pirates of the Caribbean. Some people dislike motion capture because of the lifeless look of the human characters (whose faces are often masklike and the eyes lacking spark) but that’s not a problem here; the facial expressions are realistic and there are even times that you forget that you’re watching something generated by a computer.

Spielberg took great pains to make sure the characteristic look of the Hergé drawings are retained here, but they are certainly given three dimensions and are fleshed out (the opening credits, reminiscent of Spielberg’s Saul Bass-esque opening credits on Catch Me If You Can, look more truly like the original comics) which has also caused some purists to grouse.

The plot isn’t anything fans of the series will be unfamiliar with. It might be old hat for some, but to me anyway it never gets old to see an intrepid reporter up to his eyeballs in danger, beset by goons and involved in thrilling chases as they seek a fabulous treasure. This is what the old serials were all about and why I love them so much (and I’m not alone in that).

Bell makes an enthusiastic Tintin and does his job adequately; Serkis, however as the bumbling and alcoholic Captain Haddock is absolutely amazing. He is alternately comic relief and pathos, a man who lives with the burdens of his ancestry on his shoulders and finds himself lacking. There is a good deal of subtlety in his performance that is surprising in a film like this.

The point of this movie is entertainment and on that score it delivers big time. Kids are going to love this movie even if their sights are set on movies that have gotten more hype on the Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. Tintin may not have the cache in the kid community that Shrek or Pixar might have but once kids give it a chance, they are going to be delighted. Adults will also find this fun and energetic enough to keep their interest. This isn’t quite as good as, say, Hugo but it makes for a great holiday movie to take your kids to.

REASONS TO GO: Nonstop action and adventure and the motion capture is photorealistic enough to make you forget from time to time that you’re watching computer-generated images.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little long and might be too intimidating for little kids.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some action-adventure violence, a fair amount of drunkenness on the part of Haddock and some smoking here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg became a fan of Tintin after a review comparing Raiders of the Lost Ark to Tintin piqued his interest enough to investigate the artwork. He has had the rights to the series since 1983; this is the first time he has made a movie based on a comic book character and is also the first animated feature he has directed.

HOME OR THEATER: I think this should be seen in the theater if possible and yes, in 3D if you can.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)


Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Anna Briem and Brendan Fraser test out the next theme park attraction based on the movie.

(New Line) Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem, Seth Meyers, Jane Wheeler, Jean Michel Pare, Garth Gilker. Directed by Eric Brevig

The trouble with making a movie from a classic novel – particularly one that has been filmed as many times as this one has – is that it’s easy for the audience to get the feeling that they’ve seen it all before, even if they haven’t.

Trevor Anderson (Fraser) is a volcanologist who gets little respect from his colleagues, particularly from Professor Kitzens (Meyers) who covets his lab space at the university to use for storage. Trevor has spent most of the past ten years trying to prove the theories of his brother Max (Pare) who had disappeared ten years earlier while out in the field.

To make matters worse, Trevor has forgotten that he has agreed to watch over his nephew Sean (Hutcherson) while his sister-in-law (Wheeler) is out of town. Sean and Trevor regard each other warily, with only the long-missing Max in common between them. Sean barely remembers his father; Trevor is a painful reminder of that.

His sister-in-law has also brought some of Max’s effects that she thought Trevor might want to have including a copy of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” There are some strange notations in Max’s handwriting in the margins, as well as a name – Dr. Sigurbjorn Asgeirsson.

Noticing that one of Max’s sensors in Iceland seems to be active, Trevor realizes that Max might have been onto something and here at last was his chance to prove Max’s theories once and for all. Reluctantly taking Sean in tow, he heads over to Iceland and to see Dr. Asgeirsson.

The Asgeirsson Institute of Volcanology turns out to be an unprepossessing shack in the middle of Icelandic nowhere – which is about as far away from anything resembling civilization as you can get. The good doctor turns out to be dead, but his daughter Hannah (Briem) isn’t. She reveals that her father, like Max, was a Vernian, a somewhat cultish group of people who believed that the works of Jules Verne weren’t fiction but was in fact documentaries of actual events. She knows the location of Max’s last sensor and can guide them there, which she does. However, a lightning storm chases them into a cave and then a stray lightning strike seals the entrance of the cave with a rock fall. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

Forced to find another way out, the trio find some old mine tunnels and go looking for an alternate means to the surface. Instead, they plunge through extremely thin rock and fall a long ways down into an entirely strange and different world.

Here they discover strange glowing birds, gigantic fungi and weird lifeforms that have either vanished from the surface world or were never there to begin with. However they discover to their consternation that the temperature is rising and if they don’t find a way out soon, they will all die and lie buried forever in the center of the earth.

We’ve seen this movie before, or at least a pale imitation of it. We’ve seen lizards masquerading as dinosaurs and fiberglass sets with twinkling lights. Here, we see a fully realized digital domain with amazing creatures and realistic environments. The movie was filmed using 3D, and there are plenty of 3D effects likely to make you jump off of your couch.

Fraser has the kind of charm that is lovable in a goofy kind of way. He is aw-shucks modest and a little bit clumsy as action heroes go but when the chips are down he can throw a punch. He’s the center of the movie and when he’s on as he is here he can carry a movie effectively.

Briem is a fresh-faced find, filling the romantic interest role with a different flavor than we usually get with American actresses. The only quibble I would have is that there wasn’t as much romantic spark between her and Fraser as I would have liked, although I think that the script was written that way in deference to the family audience it was going for.

The filmmakers (and probably the studio as well) seem to have been aiming for family-friendly action adventure and you get plenty of it here. It isn’t terribly offensive or scary (although there are a couple of scenes that the youngest of children might be frightened of) and therein lies the movie’s big issue. It is a little too whitebread for my tastes. I could have done with a few more scares and a little less of the annoying nephew. Still, if you have kids and you want to see something big and action-packed, this is your ticket.

WHY RENT THIS: Big, broad adventure for the entire family with some nifty 3D effects. Fraser’s goofy charm carries most of the movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely disposable and bland. There is little or no chemistry between Hannah and Trevor.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fairly scary dinosaur as well as some hungry carnivorous fish but otherwise suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During an early scene in the caverns, the explorers come across emeralds, rubies and diamonds. The diamonds the explorers examine are already cut and polished; in the raw they would actually resemble yellowish pebbles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Loaded with ‘em! It comes with both 2D and 3D editions of the movie, and four pairs of 3D glasses for viewing it in all its multi-dimensional glory. There is an interesting feature on the history of “hollow world” theories, as well as the scientists who loved them as well as a couple of interactive games.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Shutter Island

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian


Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Ben Stiller and Amy Adams learn that seven bobbleheads are better than one.

(20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, Owen Wilson, Robin Williams, Steve Coogan, Christopher Guest, Bill Hader, Alain Chabat, Jonah Hill, Ricky Gervais, Jon Bernthal, Mizuo Peck, Jake Cherry, Rami Malek, Jay Baruchel. Directed by Shawn Levy.

Anyone can tell you that there is a little bit of magic in a museum. Not only are they repositories of human knowledge and culture, they are also objects of awe and inspiration. There’s quite a lot of juju in those things.

It is two years after the events of Night at the Museum in which an Egyptian tablet brings the statues and inhabitants of the New York Museum of Natural History to life once the sun goes down. Night security guard Larry Daley (Stiller) has moved on from his gig as a night watchman at the museum, becoming the CEO of his own company which markets his own inventions including the latest, the glow-in-the-dark flashlight. He has become a busy man, meeting with Wal-Mart executives and filming infomercials with George Foreman. However, he tries to make time to see his friends in the museum, including Teddy Roosevelt (Williams), Jedediah (Wilson) and Octavius (Coogan).

This night he is informed by unctuous museum director Dr. McPhee (Gervais) that the board of trustees has elected to go a more high-tech route, with holographic exhibits that are much more cost-effective. The mannequins, stuffed animals and statuary have been donated to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington and will reside in their archives as American treasures. Only a few items – the canine T-Rex skeleton, the Easter Island statues and Roosevelt – will remain in New York.

Unfortunately Dexter, the high-strung Capuchin monkey that tormented Larry in the first movie has managed to snag that magic tablet. The night after the move takes place, Larry gets an alarming phone call from Jedediah (how he got access to a phone is anybody’s guess) indicating there is a pharaoh who is after the tablet and the outnumbered refugees from New York are under siege.

Larry gets on a plane immediately and heads to the nation’s capital. From there he heads into the bowels of the Smithsonian using a pilfered card from Brendan (Hill) – pronounced “Brun-dun” – a somewhat inexperienced Smithsonian guard, and meets up with Amelia Earhart (Adams), who becomes an instant ally.

The pharaoh in question, Kahmunrah (Azaria), is the brother of Ahkmenrah (Malek) from the first movie, and he has a chip on his shoulder. He also plans on using the tablet to summon an army of demons to initiate his rule on earth. There is nobody but Larry, Amelia and his friends from the New York museum who stand in the way of Kahmunrah and his nefarious plan.

Those who loved the first movie won’t be disappointed here. Generally, the things that made the movie delightful are here, only amplified. Unfortunately, the first movie’s flaws are also here, only amplified. Let’s start with the good stuff. Stiller’s Larry, to the credit of the filmmakers, is no longer the milquetoast that made him so annoying in the first movie. He’s matured, grown some self-confidence and found success. He makes a better hero in this movie and is given a great foil in Adams. She’s probably my favorite actress working today – I can’t think of another actress besides Julia Roberts whose mere presence in a movie is reason enough for me to see it. Ever since she first attracted notice in Junebug she hasn’t given a poor performance yet, and has proven she can carry a movie in Enchanted. While she’s not required to do that here, she essentially does it anyway. She’s the focus of every scene she’s in, at least from my point of view.

The supporting cast is pretty awesome as well. Azaria makes a superb comic villain, whose lisping delivery is a bit of homage to Boris Karloff in The Mummy. He’s completely believable and menacing enough without being too over-the-top, comic enough without being a buffoon. Coogan and Wilson make a good team and Hill’s uncredited cameo is one of the movie’s highlights. Williams is far less visible in the movie, but makes an impact whenever he’s around.

One of my big peeves with the movie is that it isn’t true to its own canon. In the first film, items brought to life that were left outside the museum after dawn turned to dust but that doesn’t happen here. Also, while the Smithsonian is crawling with security guards and riddled with surveillance cameras during the day, it seems devoid of any kind of security once darkness falls. Considering the value of the artifacts stored in their museums, you’d think that there’d be a guard or two on duty once the doors close.

Still, gripes aside, this is a fairly good family adventure movie. There’s the comedy you’d expect given the cast as well as action a-plenty. The young ‘uns in our audience seemed well-pleased with the movie and I have no reason to suspect that most family audiences won’t find it otherwise.

WHY RENT THIS: A likable cast and premise make this movie all kinds of fun. The things that made the first movie work are still here, only amplified. Amy Adams is always worth seeing no matter what the role; she nearly steals the film here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some lazy script choices give the movie a few unnecessary plot holes which admittedly the movie’s target audience will be young enough to overlook.

FAMILY VALUES: Kahmunrah’s demon army might be a bit frightening for the younger set but they aren’t really all that menacing. Otherwise, this is suitable for most family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lemmon make cameos as the Wright Brothers.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are several featurettes and a DVD game centered around the Capuchin monkeys.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Blind Side