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.