Friday, May 22, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

There are times when sequels, contrary to tradition, really can top the original. And "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" (Fox) is one such happy exception.

This enjoyable romp, again directed by Shawn Levy, takes the ex-Museum of Natural History night guard Larry (Ben Stiller) on a completely new adventure in the nation's capital.

Now a successful inventor of infomercial devices, Larry returns to the museum. His humorless ex-boss, Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais), informs him that the exhibition figures, which magically came to life in the first movie, are now considered out of date as the museum is about to be modernized, and have been shipped to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington for storage.

Determined to restore his friends to their rightful place in Gotham, Larry journeys south and slips into the Smithsonian's warehouse, after appropriating a guard's ID -- an amusing exchange with unbilled Jonah Hill.

While trying to free his buddies -- cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson), Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) and the Roman general Octavius (Steve Coogan) -- from their packing crates, he inadvertently brings back to life Egyptian leader Kahmunrah (a very funny, lisping Hank Azaria). The pharaoh hopes to resurrect his ancient army and take over the world, but he needs the giant gold keypad that Larry has in hand to unleash those troops.

It then becomes a face-off between Larry and his friends, now including a reanimated aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) and General Custer (Bill Hader) -- the latter hoping for a comeback after his defeat at the Little Big Horn -- and the power-hungry Kahmunrah, who's formed a posse with historical baddies Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat) and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal).

Along the way, the iconic paintings and statues of the Smithsonian, like Rodin's "The Thinker" and one of Degas' dancers, come to life. In one clever sequence, Larry and Earhart jump into the frame of "The Kiss," Alfred Eisenstaedt's black-and-white V-J Day photo. The giant figure of Abraham Lincoln from the memorial, Albert Einstein, and the Tuskegee Airmen all get into the action which also plays out at the Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian Castle.

There's the suggestion of a sweet, platonic romance between Larry and Earhart, though obviously, nothing can come of it, as she will return to her state as a wax statue at sunrise.

The actors from the original film have their characters down pat and make a welcome return, while the newbies are all pluses, including Chabat as a height-obsessed, hopelessly romantic Napoleon, and most especially Adams, proving again what a deft comic talent she is. Transcending caricature, she makes a spunky, likable Katharine Hepburn sort of heroine, her dialogue peppered with delightful 1930s slang, as when she spurs Larry to show some "moxie."

It's refreshing to see so many mainstream stars in a family-friendly film where the humor never becomes smutty. Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have written the screenplay as they did the first, an adaptation of Milan Trenc's children's book.

Kids will love the gags and clever special effects. Teeny Octavius confronted by what, to him, is a gargantuan squirrel is one choice sequence. Adults will appreciate the wit of those iconic paintings and sculptures springing to amazing life.

And besides providing a painless incentive to kids to learn more about history and art, the film imparts good lessons about teamwork, the overriding moral espoused by Larry near the end of the film: "The key to happiness is doing what you love with people you love."

The film also will be screened in Imax Experience technology.

Easy Virtue

Easy Virtue" (Sony Classics) is a glossy but dramatically uncertain retread of an early Noel Coward play (1924), adapted by Australian director and co-writer Stephen Elliott of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" fame.

Though not one of Coward's best, it was still enough of a hit on both sides of the Atlantic to be brought to the screen as a silent film, directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock, long before honing his image as the master of suspense.

The basic plot is this: A landed young Englishman, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), brings home his vivacious new bride, the glamorous American Larita (likable Jessica Biel) -- in the play a divorcee, but here a widow -- who clashes with her husband's stodgy mother, Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas), and repressed sisters. (In the play, one was a religious fanatic.) Larita is a woman with, as they used to say, a past.

She wins the admiration of John's more bohemian father, Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth), and bonds, quite improbably, with his childhood sweetheart, Sara (Charlotte Riley in her film debut). The latter is clearly the more suitable match for the at-heart traditional groom.

Country life proves anathema for the free-spirited Larita, who predictably comes to feel constricted by the stodgy and "conventional" family. John is almost persuaded to take her abroad until, that is, his mother reveals that the family is nearly bankrupt.

The colorful period and background tunes are enjoyable in themselves, if cliched (Coward's own "Mad About the Boy" and Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave"), some performed by Biel and others in the cast.

But despite a lush production design, performances are, sorry to say, generally flat, and no one -- not even the estimable Thomas -- is at his or her best here. Despite some flashy filmic touches from Elliott, "Easy Virtue" seems dated, and in trying to turn a drawing room tragicomedy into a breezy romp registers as false to the original.

The rickety old Hitchcock film -- which plays as pure melodrama -- is, in fact, closer to the mark.

The unconvincing story -- one never believes for a second that Larita, in the person of the vivacious Biel, would ever hook up with this family, despite the charms of her frisky young husband -- is further sabotaged by a couple of plot alterations that strain credulity further still.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story

The last time producer Walt Disney saw Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman -- the composers of "Mary Poppins" and "The Jungle Book" and the only songwriters he ever had under contract -- he called out to them, "Keep up the good work, boys."

The brothers sensed something was greatly amiss as Disney's remark seemed atypical, and indeed, the animation pioneer would soon be dead from cancer. But "the boys" would continue their prolific output with scores for his studio and others such as "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "Charlotte's Web," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and many more.

"The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story" (Disney) is a most poignant biography. The big revelation here is that all those cheery, kid-friendly songs belied a deeply fractious personal relationship between two radically different personalities. As Dick says early on, "We perpetuated a fraud for 50 years."

The "romantic" Bob and the "sentimentalist" Dick were as temperamentally divergent as the Beatles' John Lennon and Paul McCartney in their shadings of darkness and light.

Directed by their sons, Jeffrey C. Sherman and Gregory V. Sherman (whose families were estranged during their growing-up years), the well-crafted documentary -- which includes interviews with Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Lesley Ann Warren, Hayley Mills and other Disney alumni, as well as friends and family members -- attempts to trace the roots of the conflict between these two disparate personalities.

Certainly Bob's experiences during World War II -- his unit was among the first to arrive at the notorious Dachau concentration camp -- and Richard's volcanic temper, which once led him to overturn a piano, had some bearing. Bob had originally wanted to be a novelist, Dick yearned to write symphonies, and yet, as their father, songwriter Al Sherman, knew, their strength lay in their unique partnership.

Most of the screen time is given to the brothers, Richard living in Los Angeles, and the now-widowed and infirm Robert in London, who finds solace, not in writing, but in creating striking paintings. Yet, despite the geographic distance, their reminiscences are remarkably in harmony.

Throughout, there are copious clips from their most famous films, and their signature songs like "A Spoonful of Sugar," "I Wanna Be Like You" and the Disneyland perennial "It's a Small World (After All)."

Though there is nothing overtly objectionable about the film, this is one Disney release that's best suited to older viewers who can better understand the complexities of the brothers' dysfunctional -- but, at heart, caring -- partnership, and also discern the mutual respect and love beneath the strained surface.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek

Trekkies will no doubt give this exhilarating prequel to the "Star Trek" franchise a great big thumbs up. But even those who have never seen an episode of the original "Star Trek" TV series -- created by Gene Roddenberry (and to whom the film is partly dedicated) -- its spinoff series, or the 10 big-screen films that preceded this one should find "Star Trek" (Paramount/Spyglass) a superior action-adventure romp.

Director J.J. Abrams -- working from a Trek-savvy script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman -- has breathed new life into the series by skillfully balancing well-executed action sequences -- though the fast-cutting and kinetic camerawork may be off-putting at first -- with an absorbing human story, leavened with humor and optimism.

Chris Pine -- looking a bit like 1950s "rebel" James Dean -- plays the William Shatner role, James Tiberius Kirk, here an unmitigated 23rd-century rabble-rouser. He's persuaded to forgo his brawling ways by Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and enter the Starfleet Academy, with an eye to joining the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

In the film's dizzying opening sequence, we watched Kirk's mother -- in the midst of labor, no less -- being evacuated from a spaceship as his father met his death at the hands of the vengeful Romulan Nero (Eric Bana), the film's dastardly villain.

Young Kirk eventually joins a team comprised of such "Star Trek" favorites as medical officer Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban), linguist Uhura (Zoe Saldana), helmsman Sulu (James Cho), young Russian officer Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), and of course, the very proper Spock (Zachary Quinto), conflicted son of a Vulcan father (Ben Cross) and a human mother (Winona Ryder). Along the way, engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (Simon Pegg) joins the team.

They become wary rivals until they unite against Nero -- who traverses the galaxies in his forbidding Narada spaceship, hell-bent on the destruction of the planets Vulcan and Earth.

What puts this "Star Trek" above most films of this ilk are likable characters you care about. Pine and Quinto have a good chemistry that echoes that of originators Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, and the ultimate bonding of these two disparate personalities -- one instinctual, one rational -- imparts a good life lesson in teamwork for younger viewers, as does the Starship code of honor. Nimoy, incidentally, makes a not-insubstantial appearance as an aged Spock. But all the performances are winning, and pay respectful homage to their TV forebears.

Despite the deadly machinations of the sadistic Nero and a particularly frightening sequence on the ice planet Delta Vega where Kirk is chased by a horrific monster, the film is refreshingly different from the bleakness of so many futuristic stories.

Friday, May 1, 2009

9 To 5

Another film to stage musical transformation -- the well-remembered "of its time" 1980 sexual harassment comedy in which Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton got even with their boss by taking him prisoner and improving conditions at their office -- is back with Allison Janney in Tomlin's office manager role. Stephanie Block is the divorcee played by Fonda, and Megan Hilty channels Parton most charmingly. Marc Kudisch makes their chauvinist-pig boss a villain you love to hate.

Much of the humor is dated, but book author Patricia Resnick has wisely retained the original era, with amusingly anachronistic references. Parton's score -- augmented beyond the movie's title number -- is impressive in its variety. Director Joe Mantello keeps the familiar proceedings moving briskly.

(Marriott Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, (212) 307-4100 or

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Fans of the highly successful "X-Men" franchise will know precisely what to expect from "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (Fox/Marvel), a lavish and flashy action-packed prequel which explores the back story of conflicted Marvel comic-book superhero James Logan, aka Wolverine. Once again, he's played by the likable Hugh Jackman in the role that made him a star in 2000.

The opening scenes show us his defining childhood as a sickly 19th-century Canadian child who, in a traumatic series of events, sees his putative father murdered, spouts the metal claws that will become his trademark, and in the first demonstration of his volcanic temper skewers the killer. He and his bloodthirsty older brother, Victor -- endowed with the same powers as young Jimmy -- flee the scene.

After that, there's a vivid montage of the grown-up brothers -- now played by Jackman and Liev Schreiber -- serving in and, thanks to their extraordinary powers of healing, managing to survive a succession of wars over the decades: the Civil War, World Wars I and II and Vietnam.

Logan and Victor (aka Sabretooth) become part of a military team of fellow mutants Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), Wraith (Will.i.Am), Fred J. Dukes/The Blob (Kevin Durand) and Bradley (Dominic Monaghan) -- under the command of the duplicitous Col. Stryker (Danny Huston).

After witnessing one particularly repellent episode in Lagos, Nigeria, Logan decides to turn his back on violence, and moves to what he hopes will be an anonymous existence in the Canadian Rockies as a lumberjack, where he finds romance with dedicated schoolteacher Kayla (Lynn Collins), a relationship that will end in tragedy when the cold-hearted Victor comes hunting for his errant sibling, as he murderously hunts down his old teammates.

(Character motivation, even with the various revelations to come, is not a strong point of David Benioff and Skip Woods' script, which also features several genre cliches that generated some guffaws from a preview audience: "An 'adamantium' bullet is the only thing that will bring him down," one character intones with grave solemnity, but never mind.)

Director Gavin Hood, whose 2006 South African film "Tsotsi" won the Oscar for best foreign film, has less exalted material to work with here, but tries not to lose sight of the human elements with Wolverine -- and the other good characters -- generally demonstrating moral conscience.

However, our hero is at least partly motivated by vengeance, as when he agrees to a Dr. Frankenstein-like procedure that will make him indestructible. "You'll suffer more pain than a man can endure, but you'll get your revenge," he's told before agreeing to the bone-rattling transformation.

On the other hand, a kindly farmer who gives Logan refuge at one point advises the hot-headed mutant, "We all have a choice."

The copious special effects are well executed to be sure, and there are some exciting chase and battle sequences -- including the final showdown atop a cooling tower on Three Mile Island. But the noisy and kinetic action and almost nonstop violence predominate, with a dizzying body count, though actual gore is minimal.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

If Charles Dickens were still around to collect the royalties for every use that's been made of "A Christmas Carol," he'd surely be giving J.K. Rowling a run for her money, and then some.

In "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" (Warner Bros.) -- a contemporary riff on the story, though this time sans Christmas and the Victorian author's unerring good taste -- heartless womanizing bachelor Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey) has the Scrooge role, and it's marriage and fidelity rather than the yuletide spirit that he scorns.

Connor is visited by the ghosts of his sleazy playboy Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas) and those of his jilted girlfriends -- junior high dalliance Allison (Emma Stone), his assistant, Melanie (Noureen DeWulf), and a silent specter of the future (Olga Maliouk) -- on the eve of the Newport, R.I., wedding of his brother, Paul (Breckin Meyer).

Paul's engaged to the hysteria-prone Sandra (Lacey Chabert), daughter of divorced Sgt. Maj. Volkom (Robert Forster), now an ordained minister, and mother Vonda (Anne Archer).

Celebrity photographer Connor -- bluntly, a macho pig (and kudos to McConaughey for playing him so unsympathetically) -- so barely tolerates the ritual his brother is about to endure that he refuses to offer the customary toast. Sandra's randy bridesmaids are hoping to score sexually at the wedding, and have their collective eyes on Connor -- who, in a particularly yucky scene, attempts to seduce, of all people, the mother of the bride. (She coolly rebuffs him.)

Predictably, and much like his Dickensian forebear, best man Connor comes to a full realization of the depth of his feelings for his childhood sweetheart, Jenny (Jennifer Garner), the maid of honor.

There's ultimately (and predictably) a wonderfully redemptive outcome and a strong affirmation of marriage and fidelity. Connor is allowed to witness the wedding party's conversation; he hears Paul speak lovingly of how his brother looked after him when their parents were killed in a crash while they were still youngsters. The invisible Connor looks on tearfully, and in that moment, the film begins to show genuine heart.

Later on, when Connor sees the error of his ways, there are a couple of superlative scenes for the reformed McConaughey, who here demonstrates -- as he did playing the football coach in true-life drama "We Are Marshall" -- what a fine and very honest actor he can be beneath the surfer looks and washboard stomach.

It's a shame, then, that Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's script is marred by so much crude humor until then. A classier approach -- suggesting the character's prodigal ways less offensively -- would have been far preferable.

The final moments of the film -- directed by Mark Waters -- are genuinely touching, but it's a long slog through coarseness till then.