Movie Review ~ Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Larry spans the globe, uniting favorite and new characters while embarking on an epic quest to save the magic before it is gone forever.

Stars: Robin Williams, Ben Kingsley, Steve Coogan, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Rebel Wilson, Dan Stevens

Director: Shawn Levy

Rated: PG

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I believe the statute of limitations has run out by now so I can say to you now that I snuck into the first Night at the Museum on Christmas Day 2006.  My family had caught the first showing of Dreamgirls and I stuck around to see another flick while my parents started making the rounds to all of our relatives.  That first film was a pleasant, if silly, fantasy that provided good opportunities for its cast to do their thing while interacting with the kind of special effects that aren’t summer blockbuster “wow” worthy but succeeded on their own merits.

The sequel, released as summer entertainment in 2009 was the very definition of a movie studio and cast cashing in and making a quick buck.  The jokes were stale, the actors checked out, the direction given over to the special effects teams, and a higher emphasis on potty humor and gross gags made it nearly an intolerable watch.

I didn’t even know a second sequel was in the works until I caught the teaser trailer for Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb in early 2014 and by the looks of it I gleaned we were in for more of the same tired quips and even more screen time for the wily capuchin that delights in urinating on anything that gets in its way.   Seeing a Christmas release date it wasn’t hard to put the equation together that another “just for the paycheck” experience awaited all those willing to plunk down their greenbacks at the box office.

The third (supposedly final) entry in the series winds up being better than its predecessor but still falls short of the wonder the original brought forth.  Yes, it’s a near retread of the other films with scenes filled with characters seemingly chosen via random lottery (or whoever was willing to work the cheapest) and star Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) couldn’t be less invested if he tried but a compact plot keeps the action moving and largely contained to a single night of adventure.

Making it past the awful first 20 minutes is key here.  As is the case with sequels, a heavily populated opening is an easy way to give audiences a view of their favorite returning characters before finding a way to justify their absence in the latter half of the film.  Here we have night security guard Larry (Stiller) traveling to London with, among others, Teddy Roosevelt (the late Robin Williams, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), a Neanderthal doppelgänger of Larry (also played by Stiller), Jedidiah (Owen Wilson, The Internship) and Octavius (Steve Coogan, Philomena) to discover why the magical Tablet of Ahkmenrah is corroding and causing mayhem.

It’s at London’s British Museum that Larry and company encounter a bumbling security guard (Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect, proving once again that a little of her goes a long way), Lancelot (Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey), Ahkmenrah’s Pharoah Papa (Ben Kingsley, Iron Man 3), and a nasty serpent in their quest to save the tablet from destruction.

The film holds a few surprises, the best being a funny and finely timed cameo by an eternally game superstar known for his singing chops as well as his action hero status.  It’s nice to see the likes of Bill Cobbs (The Bodyguard), Mickey Rooney (who also passed away in 2014), and especially Dick Van Dyke as the old security guards from the first film.  The first time we see Van Dyke probably gave me one of the best laughs of 2014…in much the same way his appearance in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day did in October.  Though the main baddie is somewhat bland, there’s ample opportunity for moments of creativity that are too often stymied by pee jokes and the stubborn need to flesh out a coming of age story for Stiller’s son.  All are distractions (along with Stiller’s oddly changing haircut) from what could have been a nice holiday adventure.

For a moment, the film seems to be heading off into the sunset in fine form…until a total unnecessary epilogue ruins it all.  Director Shawn Levy (This Is Where I Leave You) either was under pressure from the studio to leave the franchise door slightly ajar or just couldn’t resist one more chance to let his special effects team run amok…either way it turned a warm send-off into a chilly finale that was most disappointing.

Movie Review ~ Annie (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A foster kid, who lives with her mean foster mom, sees her life change when business tycoon and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks makes a thinly-veiled campaign move and takes her in.

Stars:  Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale,Rose Byrne, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zayas, Stephanie Kurtzuba

Director: Will Gluck

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I think it’s part of the job of a movie critic to do their best to remove any personal bias before entering into any film, trying to take what they are seeing for face value and reporting back how that experience felt to them.  I have to admit that going into this re-imagined take on the Broadway musical Annie I carried with me some baggage I’ve been dragging around since the project was first announced several years ago.

So OK, perhaps the 1982 film version wasn’t the box office success studios had hoped.  At the time, it was critically drubbed, mostly due to the ghastly amount of money spent on it which, to be fair, helped give the film an old-school big Big BIG feel with more orphans than you could shake a shtick at, huge city scapes that brought audiences convincingly back to the Great Depression, and a massive mansion with a singing and dancing staff ready to step-ball-change with every downbeat.

Full disclosure, Annie was the first film I ever saw in the theater and even as a two year old I cast a critical side eye at the musical tale of a scrappy orphan that evades crooks, rescues a dog, and wins the heart of the richest man in America in 127 minutes.  I actually didn’t make it through the whole film, opting to high-tail it out when my movie treats had disappeared.  Subsequent viewings over the years has endeared the film to me, particularly with Carol Burnett’s dynamite turn as the boozy Miss Hannigan and Ann Reinking as the leggy secretary to Albert Finney’s Oliver Warbucks.

An early preview of the film made the reboot (produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) look positively frightful and subsequent clips gave me a bad taste in my mouth.  I waited with a mixture of glee and dread for the screening to arrive and was prepared to revel in my disdain for what modern spins were put on Annie and trounce those involved for their association with it all.

Consider it a minor Christmas miracle that I left the screening with very little venom for the retooling and a sizable lump in my throat.  Though it’s far from perfect and misses the mark more often than it should, this 2014 Annie is neither the embarrassment I had feared nor the train wreck I had secretly hoped for.

Let’s start with the bad and that would be Cameron Diaz.  Though Sandra Bullock was the first choice for Miss Hannigan (now fashioned as a foster mom…the words “orphan” and “orphanage” are tantamount to four letter expletives here) when she declined Diaz (Sex Tape, The Other Woman) signed on and the results are less than successful.  Admittedly, I got a nice chuckle out of this Hannigan being a faded star former member of C+C Music Factory but would have loved to see the part cast with someone that can sing without the extensive use of auto-tune.

Speaking of auto-tune, I’m shocked that the vocal sweetening tool wasn’t given its own production credit because it comes to the aid of everyone that sings a note here.  Some need it more than others (Diaz and Rose Byrne) but its use is so extensive it sounds like your iPhone’s Siri is singing one of the tunes from composers Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.  Some Strouse/Charnin songs remain intact but most have been modernized to varying degrees of success.  Three new tunes are all over the map, with only one solo for Annie having a modicum of overall value.

The film is so heavy on modern technology and product placement that it will be dated two hours after it’s released in much the same way we look back at early 90s films sporting technology that looks like it was created in the Dark Ages.  While the 1982 film was a period piece and could get away with having a timeless feel, this new millennium Annie will be out of date the moment the next Apple product is released.

On the good side, we have Quvenzhané Wallis (the youngest Best Actress nominee in history for her breathtaking turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild) as our spunky heroine.  In recent appearances, Wallis has been low energy and in an Adderall daze for her lyp-synched performances but it’s nice to report that in the actual film her spirit is infectious and her singing more than admirable.  The aforementioned new song written for her is a delight, performed with sweet honesty.  Her chemistry with businessman turned mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained) is a chief saving grace of the film and the reason why you may find yourself wishing you’d brought a tissue with you by the time the finale rolls around.  Wallis actually makes Foxx tolerable, no small feat for an actor that never met a role he couldn’t preen and preside over.  Though saddled with a loser of a song and a lame humble beginnings history, Foxx looks like he’s having fun here.

Even if Byrne (This is Where I Leave You) receives some help in the singing department, she’s a nicely modern Grace…although I did miss the flair Reinking brought to the role in the 1982 version.  Special mention must also be made to Stephanie Kurtzuba (The Wolf of Wall Street) who steals scenes (and then promptly disappears) as a rough around the edges pencil pusher more excited than Annie is when both tour the awesome penthouse belonging to Stacks.  Too bad the role couldn’t have been packaged with Miss Hannigan and given over to Kurtzuba…I’ve a feeling it could have been a true star-making turn.

Director Will Gluck comes dangerously close to making a Stomp! film that happens to feature Annie tunes thanks to an opening sequence heavy on percussive elements found in the city leading into two songs featuring lots of clapping, foot stomping, and bucket pounding.  Eventually Gluck calms down and lets the actors and the script from Aline Brosh McKenna (We Bought a Zoo) do most of the work.

At the end of the day, did we need yet another version of Annie?  Probably not.  Even so, the masses of children at the screening I attended didn’t seem to mind any technical shortcomings or vocally assisted performances because they understood the message of a can-do attitude and family at the heart of the story.  Turns out maybe I was the one that needed to get that message more than anyone.

The Silver Bullet ~ Knight of Cups

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Synopsis: Unknown (and the trailer won’t help you)

Release Date: TBD 2015

Thoughts: Director Terrence Malick doesn’t play the Hollywood game so it’s interesting that his newest film seems quite focused on the California lifestyle of the Tinsel Town elite…or does it? It’s hard to say because plot details are scarce and any attempts at figuring out who Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace) is playing could provide you ample amount of head-scratching time. Though only Malick’s seventh feature film since 1973, his style is instantly recognizable and it’s intriguing to know that it was mostly improvised. People either love or hate Malick; there’s no halfway camp (hello, Tree of Life bashers!) but even in his most obtuse the man knows how to frame a scene to make ordinary images seem extraordinary. Co-starring Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Natalie Portman (Thor), Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment), Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby), and Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop).

Movie Review ~ The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Bilbo and Company are forced to engage in a war against an array of combatants and keep the terrifying Smaug from acquiring a kingdom of treasure and obliterating all of Middle-earth.

Stars: Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Martin Freeman,Stephen Fry, Jed Brophy, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom,Billy Connolly, James Nesbitt, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Ken Stott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Graham McTavish, Lee Pace,Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Richard Armitage, John Bell,Adam Brown, John Callen, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, Dean O’Gorman, Mikael Persbrandt, Aidan Turner, Manu Bennett, Lawrence Makoare

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 144 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  So here it is…the final chapter of Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth and the end of his second trilogy featuring all sorts of hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards, dragons, rings, etc.  Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is arguably an example of the truly best storytelling on film since the medium began and it helped that the movies comprising that original trilogy were based on three individual books.  With The Hobbit films, it’s been clear that Jackson struggled with the limitations of working with just one J.R.R. Tolkien book as the subject for three rather lengthy films.

Originally intended as a two-part series, somewhere along the line the concept of another trilogy was just too appealing and Jackson went back and shot more footage to fill out the narrative, drawing on the Appendices from Tolkien and creating an entirely new character in the form of a female woodland elf (Evangeline Lilly) that forms a connection with a dwarf.

I (along with many others) wasn’t quite enamored with 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey finding it too ponderous and uneventful even with its impressive technical merits. A year later, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug suffered from another workmanlike introduction before hitting paydirt in its final hour when the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek: Into Darkness) made his appearance.  Ending with a great cliffhanger, I think many fans were equal parts excited to see the finale in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and relieved that this troubled chapter was closing.

Before seeing this last film I did something I didn’t do last year, I spent a day with my favorite Lord of the Rings fan and watched the first two Hobbit films in their extended versions back to back.  I suddenly found the narrative less onerous and appreciated the way that Jackson let the story unfold as brave hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, The World’s End) traversed across the countryside with a group of dwarves toward the Lonely Mountain searching for a stone that would restore a kingdom to its rightful owners.

Unlike the original Lord of the Rings films, these three Hobbit entries are essentially one long (looooooong) movie and should be seen together.  Now, I’m sure your rump just let out a little squeal of disagreement but I know I enjoyed The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies as much as I did because I had seen its two predecessors shortly before.  Now, Jackson’s stretching of the material wasn’t quite so objectionable and began to make a lot of sense.

That’s not to say The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t fall into the same traps that befell the earlier entries.  There’s still a questionable amount of scenes that go on longer than they should; Jackson backs off on his gained momentum when he should be blazing forward.  The battle sequences occupy the majority of this chapter and at times it can be an overwhelming experience, but on the other hand they’re staged with the kind of epic grandeur that recalls old Hollywood epics featuring casts of thousands.

The digital rendering of an endless supply of hideous evils are a sight to behold and the technicians involved should not only pick out their attire for the Oscar ceremony now, they should ready their acceptance speeches.  It’s the highest level of proficiency I’ve seen out of Jackson’s effects house and the results are excellent.

As for the flesh and blood actors, all deliver solid performances that tie in nicely to the events that follow in the Lord of the Rings series.  Though there are a few references to future characters that seem overly shoehorned in, I gotta say that I appreciated how well Jackson and co. make sure that all the ends are connected before the credits roll.

Along with Freeman’s jittery Bilbo (I’ve decided he’s the Hugh Grant of hobbits) there’s Ian McKellen’s (X-Men: Days of Future Past) wise wizard Gandalf, Richard Armitage’s (Into the Storm) haunted dwarf who would be king, and the luminous Cate Blanchett’s (Blue Jasmine) as Galadriel who winds up with one of the film’s most thrilling moments that’s nearly worth the price of admission in and of itself.

One couldn’t be blamed if the feeling to move right into a Lord of the Rings marathon is present as this film reaches its conclusion.  Jackson has seen to it that the transition between his two trilogies is fluid and while he won’t win an Oscar for his efforts this time around, he deserves another round of applause for the world he brought to life in six films.  A high-water achievement as a filmmaker…even if The Hobbit films still can’t hold a candle to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Movie Review ~ The Babadook

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.

Stars: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Noah Wiseman,Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear

Director: Jennifer Kent

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’d like to let you in on a little secret the marketing team for The Babadook probably doesn’t want you to know: it’s not an Insidious/Sinister/The Conjuring-like scare fest that derives its shocks and jolts from loud music stings and icky ghouls that peek out from under the bed.

That’s not to say The Babadook doesn’t have a treasure trove worth of frights at the ready for audiences but to truly feel the effect of director Jennifer Kent’s slow burn horror film you need to be patient, listen, and invest yourself in the characters and situations presented to you.

Drawing parallels between unexpressed grief and horror manifested as a boogey-man type specter, Kent’s tale unspools at its own pace, thankfully taking the time to introduce us to the mother and son that are haunted by a malevolent force inside their creaky old manse.  Still grieving the loss of her husband killed the day their son was born, Amelia (Essie Davis) is barely keeping it together between her demanding job as a caregiver and fulfilling her motherly duties to her troubled son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman).

Plagued by night terrors, Samuel acts out at school and when he’s removed from class it’s not long before mother and son find themselves cooped up in their house with little to keep them company but television and bedtime stories.  Pulling a new book from the shelf, Amelia reads the tale of The Babadook, a menacing creature with a presence that is seemingly inescapable.  When the book and its titular character start to take on a life of its own, Amelia and Samuel face their fears as the lines between reality and fiction become ever harder to decipher.

There’s some marvelously rewarding sequences here, whether you are a horror aficionado or a scaredy-cat that burrows under the covers when the scares get too overwhelming.  Kent wisely keeps the performances small while showing how many dark corners this house has for evil to lurk.  Bolstered by a creepy performance from Wiseman and a heroically tremendous one from Davis, the film has more intensely dramatic scenes than it does outright terror (fear not you scare hounds, several deviously executed bits will provide you with your goosebump quota for 2014 and 2015),  providing the kind of balance that many similar films struggle to find.

Watching this film at home, I can imagine the experience to be slightly different in a movie theater seeing that you always have the safety of your home to retreat to.  Since The Babadook is all about the fear that you may just be manifesting on our own, conjuring those images while in a space you consider safe may not be the wisest choice either if you have any hope of getting a decent night’s rest.

Worthy of the good buzz and accolades it’s receiving, The Babadook is a smart, skilled film that heralds the arrival of a significant writer-director in Kent.  Seek it out, but beware that you may not be able to get rid of The Babadook once you’ve let it in.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Walk

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Synopsis: The story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s attempt to cross the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

Release Date:  October 2, 2015

Thoughts: Inspired by the Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire, this is the true story of a high-wire daredevil that pushed the limits of his technique.  The original documentary was a nail-biting bit of wonderment, easily deserving of its Academy Award and I’m interested to see what director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) makes of the material that was already told so well.  Zemeckis isn’t as formidable as he once was, opting to produce more films that he directs but when he does the results have been unique and defined by real storytelling.  Featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon) as Philippe Petit, our first look at The Walk doesn’t give away much…but at least you’ll have time to check out Man on Wire before The Walk arrives in October

The Silver Bullet ~ The Interview

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Synopsis: Dave Skylark and his producer Aaron Rapoport run the popular celebrity tabloid TV show “Skylark Tonight.” When they discover that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is a fan of the show, they land an interview with him in an attempt to legitimize themselves as journalists.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Back in June of this year, The Interview was already in hot water.  A news agency in North Korea vowed retaliation against the studio distributing the comedy (Sony/Columbia), warning all involved of their plans.  Sony, undeterred from any potential backlash and encouraged by positive test screenings moved the release date from an early October bow to prime holiday real estate: Christmas Day.  In the last few weeks it seems the promise from North Korea was made good on when Sony suffered a massive hack of their internal e-mails, exposing the inner dealings of studio heads and filmmakers to public embarrassment.

Though deep down I secretly hope this is all a massive prank to promote the film, one has to wonder how worth the risk the film will end up being.  Even considering that I’m not a huge fan of James Franco (Oz, The Great and Powerful) or Seth Rogen (This Is The End) I have to say that the sheer audacity of the offensive premise of The Interview earns them some small credit in my book.  Will Sony be laughing all the way to the bank with egg on their face?

The Silver Bullet ~ Mad Max: Fury Road (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: An apocalyptic story set in the furthest reaches of our planet, in a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, and almost everyone is crazed fighting for the necessities of life

Release Date: May 15, 2015

Thoughts: So many trailers commit the cardinal sin of not being interesting enough to ensnare audiences into returning to see the final product…and then there are trailers like Mad Max: Fury Road. Like the first preview released in July, it’s clear that this will be one highly original futuristic film that takes no prisoners with its over the top theatricality. Providing more excitement and jaw-dropping moments in 2:30 than most films can muster at their feature length best, it’s a glorious reminder that movies can transport you to another world and thrill you with innovation. In short, Mad Max: Fury Road looks to be one bad ass sock-knocker-offer.   Directed by George Miller (who also helmed the original three Mad Max films) and starring Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), Charlize Theron (Prometheus), and Nicolas Hoult (Jack the Giant Slayer), I can’t wait to hit the road with this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ Still Alice

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Synopsis: Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who starts to forget words. When she receives a devastating diagnosis, Alice and her family find their bonds tested.

Release Date: January 16, 2015

Thoughts: Will this be the year that four-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore finally takes home the trophy? Even turning up in the silly Non-Stop hasn’t seemed to hurt her chances at making her way to The Academy Awards come February. Between the buzzed about performances in Still Alice and Maps to the Stars (not to mention a nicely nuanced turn in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1), Moore is having a killer 2014. Odds seem to be good she’ll be nominated for both films but even money says Still Alice is a lock and after a look at the trailer showing Moore as a successful woman coming to terms with her early onset Alzheimer’s it’s easy to see why. Co-starring Alec Baldwin (Blue Jasmine), Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman), and Kate Bosworth (Homefront), it’s sure to be Moore’s show but she seems to be in good company.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Last 5 Years

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Synopsis: Based on the musical, a struggling actress and her novelist lover each illustrate the struggle and deconstruction of their love affair.

Release Date: February 13, 2015

Thoughts: I have to admit that since its debut in 2001 I’ve struggled with warming to the small two-person off-Broadway musical being brought to the screen by director Richard LaGravenese (Beautiful Creatures). Not that the material isn’t good or the talent wasn’t there, I just found myself too removed from the proceedings to latch on to anything that truly moved me.

The first trailer for The Last 5 Years finally stirred something inside of me and I’m more interested than ever to re-discover this piece that quickly became a cult favorite for theaters big and small around the world. Borrowing ever so slightly from Pinter and telling it’s tale from the start and end of a relationship, all eyes will be on leads Anna Kendrick (about to score with Into the Woods, another popular musical adaptation come Christmastime) and Jeremy Jordan (Joyful Noise) to see just how sweet their three hanky musical romance will play out. Though it’s not based on a musical seen by millions, I think there’s a strong possibility this could be a sleeper success…