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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I, Frankenstein


Aaron Eckhart is pissed off that his agent let him sign up for this film.

Aaron Eckhart is pissed off that his agent let him sign up for this film.

(2014) Horror Fantasy (Lionsgate) Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovsky, Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney, Socratis Otto, Aden Young, Caitlin Stasey, Mahesh Jadu, Steve Mouzakis, Nicholas Bell, Deniz Akdeniz, Chris Pang, Kevin Grevioux, Bruce Spence, Virginie Le Brun, Penny Higgs, Goran Kleut, Yasca Sinigaglia, Nicole Downs, Angela Kennedy, Samantha Reed. Directed by Stuart Beattie

We are born and then we are created. We are all of us blank slates that are filled up by our experiences and our mentors, parents and friends. Of course if you don’t have the latter, you are left to interpret things on your own.

Victor Frankenstein (Young) had found the secret of creation, animating a sewn-together quilt of body parts and grafted skin. Part scientist and part madman, he had promised his creature (Eckhart) that he would one day animate a companion for him but later went back on his promise. In a fit of rage, the creature murdered Frankenstein’s wife (Le Brun) which completely unhinges his creator, who follows his creation up above the Arctic circle and promptly freezes to death. For reasons even he probably can’t understand, the creature carries the body back to the graveyard to bury his creator alongside his wife when the creature is attacked by demons. A pair of gargoyles witness the event in which the creature kills (and sends their spirits back to Hell) most of his attackers. Sounds plenty biblical to me.

They take him back (none too willingly) to a huge Notre Dame-like cathedral in some unnamed Eurocity where he is introduced to Leonore (Otto), Queen of the Gargoyles. She explains to the creature (whom she names Adam) that there is a war going on between the Demons of Hell and the Gargoyles who are the agents of Heaven (apparently the angels didn’t want to get their wings dirty) and that for whatever reason the demon Prince Naberius (Nighy) had chosen to involve Adam, he was nevertheless caught in the middle. However, Adam who is kind of pissed off at life in general (talk about someone who never asked to be born) chooses to turn his back, heading someplace where humans can’t find him. Or demons. Or gargoyles.

200 years pass and Adam, tired of being stalked by demons and still pissed off at life in general, decides to go on the offensive. Things haven’t changed much in gargoyle-land except that they are now willing to win by any means necessary and they don’t trust Adam much. Naberius, masquerading as a tech industrialist, has hired Dr. Terra (Strahovsky), a respected scientist, to help Naberius figure out a way to replicate Victor Frankenstein’s work. Of course, she doesn’t realize she’s working for a demon prince or she’d probably have asked for enough of a salary increase to afford a better apartment.

She’s able to re-animate rats but not humans yet; the reappearance of Adam and the existence of Victor Frankenstein’s journal in the possession of the gargoyles gives her a shot at actually reanimating human corpses. But what does Naberius want with reanimated corpses and how will that lead to the end of the world? And what will Adam, still pissed off at life in general, do about it – if anything?

Based on the Kevin Grevioux (who has a small role in the film) graphic novel, this has a lot of the same elements of the Underworld series; since some of the producer of that series are involved, it isn’t a stretch to figure out why the movie has much the same look as that hit movie franchise. Mainly set at night or at dusk, with palates of blue and grey predominant in the mix, the movie looks slick.

There is of course plenty of CGI gargoyles and demons to augment the slick look, with lots of digital flame and blue light to denote when a gargoyle or demon respectively bites the dust (the flames descend downward, the blue light ascends upward). The only thing missing is a black leather catsuit for Strahovsky.

Eckhart has been one of Hollywood’s most interesting leading men over the last decade but this is a definite misfire. His only expression is anger with a side trip into annoyed. He’s like the Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino only with a murderous glare and lots of scars. He’s still charismatic but we get no sense of his inner journey – he eventually decides to help (not much of a spoiler gang) but we never get a clear sense of why; for someone who just wants to be left alone he really sticks his nose in things.

Nighy is one of my favorite actors and he’s essentially entertaining in everything he does. He can be light and charming, or dark and menacing as he is here. He makes for a fine demon prince, urbane and charming on the surface but with a whole load of delicious evil below it. Something tells me that a movie about his character would have been much more fun. Strahovsky, best known as the love interest in the TV show Chuck, looks pretty good on the big screen. I think she’ll make the transition just fine if that’s where she wants to go. Sadly, all three of these fine actors deserved better (as does Miranda Otto as the wishy-washy gargoyle queen).

In movies like Legion and Max Payne we get a very similar background story with a very similar look to both movies, and this one doesn’t really distinguish itself from those other two (and a whole mess o’ B-movies with similar themes). While some of the effects are nice and the leading actors do their job, the dialogue can be cringeworthy and you get the sense that director Beattie – who has some pretty good movies to his credit – lost a whole lot of battles to the producers and/or studio. In any case, this is bound to be heading to home video pretty quickly and while I won’t say it’s a complete waste of your time, you might be better off waiting for it to be a cheaper ticket than the ten dollars plus for the 3D version that are out there now.

REASONS TO GO: Bill Nighy is always entertaining. Aaron Eckhart is a solid leading man. Some nice eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Plot is very much paint-by-numbers. All concept and no substance.

FAMILY VALUES:  Throughout the movie there’s plenty of action and violence although not much gore.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster was given the name Adam in Mary Shelley’s original novel. Few of the movies have utilized it but this one does.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 5% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Constantine

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Labor Day

Frankenweenie


Frankenweenie

Good doggie!

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchatta Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao, Tom Kenny, Christopher Lee, Frank Welker, Dee Bradley Baker. Directed by Tim Burton

 

The bond between a boy and his dog is something that ranks right up there with the closest relationships that we know of. Lonely boys, in particular, seem to become more attached to their canine companions. It is that feeling of unconditional love that is reciprocated; the dog can do no wrong, whether they bark at passing cars or leave an indiscretion on the living room carpet. These same boys as men will rarely love anyone or anything as much as they love their childhood dog.

Victor Frankenstein (Tahan) lives in the quiet suburban neighborhood of New Holland with his parents (O’Hara, Short). He is a smart kid, a science whiz who is something of a loner. He doesn’t have friends and doesn’t want any. In fact, he doesn’t need any – he has Sparky (Welker), an affectionate dog of indeterminate breed. Sparky goes everywhere with him, although he sometimes annoys the neighbor, the Mayor (Short again) by tearing up the flowers and marking the territory (ahem).

The mayor’s niece – Elsa (Ryder) is staying with her uncle, along with her poodle Persephone (Baker). She and Victor are in science class together at school, being taught by the somewhat haughty Mr. Rzykruski (Landau), a sinister looking soul but one who loves science with a passion. Along with Victor and Elsa are Edgar (Shaffer), an unlovely hunchback who can’t keep a secret; Bob (Capron) a rotund young boy with an easy-going nature and an insatiable appetite and Toshiaki (Liao), an Asian boy with ambitions of winning the science fair that go well on the road to obsession.

Tragedy strikes however when Sparky is killed. Victor is inconsolable, despite his mom and dad’s best efforts to cheer him up. He misses his dog terribly – his only companion. Victor watches a film that he made with his dog over and over again, unable to let go. Then, a lecture by Mr. Rzykruski that involved stimulating a dead frog’s muscle with an electric charge suddenly turns a light on in Victor’s brain. He would bring Sparky back to life.

He digs up his beloved dog from the local pet cemetery and turns his attic into a lab using whatever he can scrounge from around the house. There are lightning storms in New Holland regularly and that very night he uses one to revivify Sparky, whom he’s had to patch together with sewing thread. Still, the dog seems no worse for the wear (with an occasional ear or tail being thrown off when he gets excited) but Victor realizes most people will fear what he’s done and certainly nobody will understand it. Sparky needs to remain hidden but there’s not much chance a dog as rambunctious as Sparky will remain cooped up in an attic for long.

This is more or less an “old home week” kind of project for Burton. Way back in 1984 he did a “Frankenweenie” short which this comes from, albeit far more involved and expanded upon both from a cinematic and story standpoint. This is stop-motion animation just like The Corpse Bride was and has a similar spindly pipe cleaner leg oversized head saucer eyes kind of look to it, kind of like a gringo Day of the Dead look.

SCTV vets Short and O’Hara work nicely together as the parents while Tahan, whose Victor resembles Burton facially (and is likely meant to be his surrogate) doesn’t overplay, which sometimes happens in animated features. Landau does an excellent job with the science teacher who looks like a kind of cadaverous Vincent Price. The Eastern European accent also brings Bela Lugosi to mind.

There is a definite love letter to classic horror films here (as mentioned below), with appearances by Frankenstein, Dracula, Ghiderah and the Mummy. There is also a good deal of heart here, particularly when it comes to a boy’s devotion to his dog. I cried twice during the movie (no points if you can guess when) which takes some doing. There is also a certain amount of quirkiness that you would come to expect with a Tim Burton movie – his trademark, I’d say. It’s different from indie quirkiness in that it has a more ’50s suburban feel as interpreted by Roger Corman.

While the movie seems to have a difficult time deciding what era it’s in (at one point there are references to home computers but the look and feel is definitely more 1950s Americana), there is no doubt that this is a movie that knows its own roots and sticks to them. I hadn’t expected much from Frankenweenie after Burton’s misfire with Dark Shadows earlier this year but I should have known better. This is certainly one of his best movies in the last 10 years.

REASONS TO GO: Hits some powerful emotions. A return to form for Burton after his last misstep.

REASONS TO STAY: A little mannered in places. Some era confusion.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that might be a tad scary for younger tots. The theme of losing a beloved pet might also be too much for sensitive kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Tim Burton-directed movie not to feature Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter since 1996.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The reviews have been strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nightmare Before Christmas

CLASSIC HORROR LOVERS: There are homages throughout the film to various classic horror films and genres from the obvious Frankenstein to Vincent Price, the Toho giant lizard films, gothic Hammer horror and Gremlins among others.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Taken 2

Re-Animator


Re-Animator

Barbara Crampton has no idea what's in store for her in Re-Animator.

(Empire) Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott, David Gale, Robert Sampson, Gerry Black, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Peter Kent. Directed by Stuart Gordon

My wife’s favorite horror film of all time is The Hitcher which just goes to show that some people can have diametrically opposed tastes in horror movies and still co-exist. The Hitcher is one of two movies that I’ve walked out on in the middle of the movie in my entire life (for completists, D-Wars is the other). I thought it was creepy enough, but I simply couldn’t get behind the actions of the hero in the movie and finally gave up on it after the infamous truck stretching scene.

But what is my favorite horror movie of all time? Well, I have several that are contenders – The Exorcist, Bride of Frankenstein, Poltergeist, Alien, Them and probably a few others that rotate in and out of my top ten depending on my mood but generally speaking the movie I usually name as my all-time fave is this one.

After a scandal forces young Herbert West (Combs) to leave a prestigious university in Switzerland (under the tutelage of the brilliant Dr. Gruber) to slum over to second-rate Miskatonic University, he rents a room from Dan Cain (Abbott), a medical student studying neurosurgery under the arrogant Dr. Carl Hill (Gale). Cain is also dating the lovely Megan Halsey (Crampton), daughter of the straight-laced Dean of the Medical School (Sampson). Sweeeeeeeeeeeeeet set-up, dude!

West, himself an arrogant little jerk, has been spending an awful lot of time in the basement of the house of Cain and Dan and Megan soon find out why. It turns out that West had been working on forbidden experiments with Dr. Gruber in Switzerland that involved re-animating dead tissue and the two had been successful using a bright green glowing liquid West refers to as Re-Agent.

The problem is that the re-animated dead become violent and unpredictable, basically mindless animals who lash out to inflict the pain that they themselves are feeling. There’s a whole lot of screaming involved with the process.

At first Dan is appalled but quickly sees the legitimate medical value of the stuff and begins to help West out with his experiments. In the meantime, Dr. Hill has also found out about the Re-Agent and wants the formula for himself so that he can take credit for the discovery. He has also developed an unhealthy obsession with the nubile young Megan.

As West tries to keep control of his discovery, he slips into a kind of obsessive madness that is equal parts mad scientist, nerd and obsessive-compulsive. He longs to have more bodies to test out his serum on and after not too long he’s up to his elbows in them.

This was one of the most influential horror movies of its time on a lot of different levels. Made for horror producer Charles Band’s first studio Empire (which would later be replaced by the notorious Full Moon Studios which was essentially direct-to-video), it was one of the more critically acclaimed horror movies for its time (and remember the 80s were one of the most fertile periods for the genre, with the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises going strong) and remains a cult favorite for many.

Part of the reason it works so well is that it is perfectly cast. Combs established a persona that he has spent a career spinning off of as the twitchy unlikable lead. Gale makes the perfect counterpoint, being loathsome, arrogant, smooth and lecherous all at once. Crampton, a veteran of soap operas, became a horror scream queen based on her work here – she was cute, sure but she had more personality than most of the other cute scream queens of her time. Of course, her notorious scene with Dr. Hill was unsettling, funny and sexy all at once…I know it had a number of people squirming in their seats at the time.

The effects don’t always hold up 25 years later but for their time they were pretty innovative and quite a few of them still pack a wallop even today. The script by Dennis Paoli is imaginatively written and even if it didn’t have a whole lot to do with the source material, a short story by horror icon H.P. Lovecraft, it still was an outstanding piece of work.

Dead is dead but not in the horror movies, and director Stuart Gordon knows when to go over-the-top and when to be subtle. This is one of those serendipitous movies in which everything came together perfectly and all the planets aligned correctly to make a movie that surprised a whole lot of people with how good it was. It established the careers of Gordon, Crampton, Combs and producer Brian Yuzna and raised the bar on horror movies, a bar that remains even today. If you love horror movies and haven’t seen it, you need to stop what you’re doing and go rent this. It’s fairly widely available and the Anchor Bay DVD edition is loaded with special features. It’s got something for everybody and even those who aren’t fond of horror movies will appreciate the quality of this one.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best horror movies ever made; it has everything from black humor to extreme gore to titillating sexuality. Combs made his career with his twitchy performance here and Crampton made a great scream queen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be too over-the-top for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of gore and ghoulishness, with plenty of nudity and sex. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore; not for kids in the least.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The special effects department went through 25 gallons of fake blood during the shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A recent re-release of the movie on Anchor Bay includes a 12-part documentary feature on the making of the movie as well as the controversy surrounding it, and a PDF version of the original H.P. Lovecraft short story for those equipped with DVD-ROM on their computers.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs