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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

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Synopsis: Larry leaves New York City for London on a quest to save the magic before it is gone forever.

Release Date: December 19, 2014

Thoughts: I usually keep decent tabs on movies but I must have been asleep when a second sequel to 2006’s Night at the Museum was announced…that or else the film was greenlit when no one was looking. While the original reminded me of the type of fun Disney may have rolled out in the early 70s, the sequel was a cash-grab from all involved…adding nothing but loud noises and special effects. Can’t say the third film looks to be anything different with star Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) returning alongside director Shawn Levy (This Is Where I Leave You) and the rest of the crazy characters that come to life when the museum is closed. Looking at the positive, one can be hopeful that the film inspires the youngins to take a more active interest in history and their local museums.

The Silver Bullet {Flashback} ~ Toys (1992)

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Synopsis: When a military general inherits a toy making company and begins making war toys, his employees band together to stop him before he ruins the name of Zevo Toys forever.

Release Date: December 18, 1992

Thoughts: With the tragic passing of Robin Williams this week, I’ve seen a lot of people bringing up some of his more underappreciated film roles and thought I’d toss one out there as well. For every Mrs. Doubtfire Williams had a Bicentennial Man, for every Jumanji there was a What Dreams May Come, with each Dead Poets Society there was a Lee Daniels’ The Butler…the list goes on. 1992’s Toys is an oddball film to be sure that still doesn’t quite work for me but there’s something about the Oscar nominated design and the balanced performance of Williams that helps the movie click on more than a few occasions. I can’t imagine anyone else playing Williams’ zany role with quite the same amount of sensitivity – give this one a whirl and see how a good Williams can overcome a bad script.

Movie Review ~ Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams

Director: Lee Daniels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat.  Here’s what a lot of the reviews for this work of historical fiction aren’t telling you – it’s not a very good movie.  I’m not quite sure why so many are reluctant to admit that but after seeing the movie maybe you will have your own opinion as to why.  While Lee Daniels’ The Butler is filled with an impressive array of award-winning talent, the film itself is a Forrest Gump-ish mish-mash of coincidence that winds up squandering opportunities for real watercooler discussion material in favor of shoe-horning in more brushes with historical figures.

Inspired by a real life White House butler who served eight presidents, screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels go their own way and fashion Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, The Last Stand), his wife Gloria (Winfrey), and their two sons Louis (David Oyelowo , Jack Reacher) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) into figures they can move through history into situations that suit the overall scope of the film in retelling key moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

The reason to see the film is Whitaker and, for the incredibly curious, Oprah Winfrey.  Whitaker takes Strong’s history 101 kitchen sink script and runs with it, creating a man of impressive worth with a powerful story to tell.  It’s too bad that his story and the story of his family are merely a device for the movie to manipulate as the years go by.  As written by Strong, Louis is present at every major pivotal moment in Civil Rights history and each president has a moment of solidarity with Cecil.  Where Forrest Gump could play off these coincidences as accidental and therefore instilled a sliver of believability, here it just seems like the poorly constructed maneuver it actually is.

Absent from the silver screen since 1998’s misfire Beloved, Winfrey makes the most out of a bad situation (and at least two abysmal costumes) and seizes each moment that allows her to emote.  With a laid-back, casual acting style, Winfrey may not win any awards for the role (and really, she shouldn’t) but it’s respectable work that you can tell she fought for.  I just wish she was in a better film because as her debut performance in 1986’s The Color Purple showed us, she’s a more than capable actress.

Rounding out the trio of leads, Oyelowo has the trickiest of the roles because his plot line is the most far-fetched and least fleshed out.  Starting off as a peaceful protester in his Southern college town during the beginning of the race riots, he soon joins the Freedom Riders only to be swept up into the violence of the early days of the Black Panther movement.  Oyelowo and his girlfriend (gorgeous Yaya Alafia) take on not only Ruth E. Carter’s impressive array of period costumes but handle their historical movements with skilled dedication.

Playing presidents and others to largely successful results is a starry line-up that runs the gamut from spot on (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as The Reagans, Liev Schreiber as LBJ) to the “Okay, if you say so” (John Cusack as Richard Nixon).  Broadway vets Coleman Domingo and Adriane Lenox also turn in well-rounded supporting performances.

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn favors a gauzy look which gives the film a humid fuzz that didn’t work for me.  It creates a swampy feel whenever we aren’t at the White House and as the years go by and some questionable old age make-up is applied to our actors, the movie feels deliberately out of focus.  The score by newcomer Rodrigo Leão sounds like a re-working of The West Wing theme and is neither memorable or telling of the talents of the composer.

The movie unspools like clockwork with pretty much every event foreshadowed in an earlier scene.  It’s so workmanlike and designed for mass consumption that I’m actually surprised director Daniels wanted to be a part of it.  Directing the hard-hitting Precious and the lurid The Paperboy, Daniels seems to like to take his audiences on a journey but here he’s merely a passenger like the rest of us.  Originally intended as a project for Spike Lee, the movie feels more convenient than timely…the kind of film viewers can see and pat themselves on the back afterward.

Aimed squarely at gaining Oscar nominations, the film made headlines before it was even released when Warner Brothers sued distributor The Weinstein Company over the title.  It seems like Warner Brothers had a short film in its vaults from 1916 also called The Butler that they didn’t want the public to confuse with this work from 2013.  The comprise was to include the director’s name in front of the title…something I’m sure Lee Daniels had no trouble with.  That anyone would confuse the two movies is a mystery to me because I’m sure the earlier film didn’t have a scene with LBJ on the toilet barking out orders.

That the film winds up with some small measure of success is thanks to the performances of Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo with work that rises above Strong’s less than profound script.  It’s not a great film but it’s not boring or a total write-off.  If anything, I left the screening wanting to know more about the real characters and situations the movie touches on.  In the end, any film that brings up the discussion on the evolution of Civil Rights (however ham-fisted the discussion is scripted) in our country earns a qualified recommendation.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Butler

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Synopsis: A look at the life of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents as the White House’s head butler from 1952 to 1986, and had a unique front-row seat as political and racial history was made.

Release Date:  October 18, 20113

Thoughts: I find myself at a crossroads with Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels.  Though I felt his work on Precious was deserving of his Oscar nomination his other work has produced a strong reaction in me – a negative reaction.  His first feature, Shadowboxer was a rumpled mess even with star Helen Mirren and his Precious follw-up The Paperboy was an loony exercise that tested the mettle of even the most forgiving audience member.  So I’m approaching The Butler with some angst that it will be another Daniels pic with a strong cast that ultimately fails to deliver.  On the other hand, this first trailer hints at a movie without its own agenda that could conceivably call upon the strengths of many of the talented cast involved.  Releasing in October, I’m hoping this works because I think there’s a good story to tell here.