WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
This follow-up to the 2006 smash hit Night at the Museum picks up shortly after the events of the first film with one-time museum security guard Larry Daley now living the life of a famous inventor. One night he decides to pay a visit to his old haunt the Museum of Natural History where he discovers that some of his favorite exhibits (and old not-so-inanimate friends) have been labeled as “out of date” and are being shipped off to storage at the Smithsonian Institute archives. In no time he gets a distress call from miniature cowboy Jedediah who informs Larry that a group of history’s most notorious evil personalities including Ivan the Terrible Napoleon Bonaparte and Al Capone are hatching a conspiracy. Together with their ringleader the 3000-year-old Egyptian pharaoh Kahmunrah they plan to take over the Smithsonian and after that the world. Larry springs quickly into action teaming up with Amelia Earhart and tries to save his old friends — and perhaps the planet — from the insidious invaders who’ve awakened from their slumber.
WHO’S IN IT?
Ben Stiller returns as Larry playing straight man once again to a legion of historical figures including new and returning characters. Back from the original are Robin Williams as a spirited Teddy Roosevelt Owen Wilson as Jedediah Smith Steve Coogan as the Roman emperor Octavius Patrick Gallagher as Attila the Hun and Mizuo Peck as Sacajawea. Ricky Gervais again appears briefly at the start and finish as museum curator Dr. McPhee. Welcome additions include a lively Amy Adams as the famed female flyer Earhart and a very funny Bill Hader (TV's Saturday Night Live) as an insecure General Custer. Christopher Guest plays Ivan the Terrible while Alain Chabat has lots of fun as Napoleon. Jon Bernthal’s Al Capone meanwhile is cleverly shot and isolated in vivid black and white. Best of all by a mile — and the real reason to see Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian — is Hank Azaria who plays Kahmunrah with brilliant comic timing and an affected speech pattern that’s highly amusing. The multi-talented Azaria (The Simpsons) provides the voices for two new computer-enhanced characters: a towering Abraham Lincoln and Rodin’s sculpture of The Thinker. Jonah Hill also shows up in an early scene as a Smithsonian security guard who confronts Stiller — a subplot that goes nowhere.
Although this follow-up suffers from a severe case of “sequelitis ” director Shawn Levy knows what makes this formula work for kids. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian deserves props as the rare studio blockbuster intent on actually providing a little education by making these important historical personalities come to such vivid life. Use of photos and paintings from the adjacent museums is the most inventive new wrinkle serving as a clever interactive device for Stiller to use throughout the flick.
The screenplay (again by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) rehashes a lot of what was fresh in the first film and the result feels roboticly recycled. Levy’s direction seems rushed at times as if the filmmakers are afraid anyone with an attention span beyond 30 seconds. Kids will eat this up but aside from Azaria there aren’t many laughs for Mom Dad and older siblings.
For pure visual-effects wizardry and wonder you can’t beat the gang’s arrival at the Air and Space Museum where the production actually shot for a week. It’s awe-inspiring. Amelia Earhart’s encounter there with the African-American Tuskegee Airmen is also a swell touch.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Multiplex but drop the kids off and go shopping instead.
Completely stripping Catwoman of her "Batman" connections the geniuses behind this comic-book movie--at least as bad as Spider-Man 2 is good--also stripped it of any pleasure. Neither campy a la Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt of the old TV series nor sexy vamp like Michelle Pfeiffer of Batman Returns Halle Berry's Catwoman is well one lost little kitty in the big city. Actually she's Patience Philips--an annoyingly mousy graphics designer for a top cosmetics firm who despite her job has no fashion sensibility no self-confidence and no boyfriend. (Yeah riiiight!) She is befriended by a mystical Egyptian Mau cat which--courtesy of lousy digital effects--often looks disturbingly like Toonces and sounds like Linda Blair in The Exorcist when it meows; moreover its way of befriending Patience is to lure her into a suicide attempt--one of many plot points lacking a rationale. When Patience discovers that the cosmetics firm's villainous owner (Lambert Wilson) and aging supermodel wife (Sharon Stone) are marketing a toxic disfiguring facial cream she is killed--flushed through a drainage system into the ocean. But here comes that darn cat again to revive her as she's lying in sludge and mud. Next thing she knows she's sleeping on her apartment's bookshelf eating tuna by the caseload looking longingly at Jaguar hood ornaments as if they're long-lost relatives and jumping about walls basketball courts and whatnot faster than a speeding bullet. She also takes to wearing a pointy-eared black-leather dominatrix outfit along with too much makeup but at least no whiskers. She also starts sniffing around that foul cosmetics firm which leads to a martial-arts showdown with Stone. What the Oscar-winning Berry doesn't do regrettably is get a CAT scan to see what kind of ailment convinced her to make this lamebrain movie.
I've seen better acting on 7-Eleven surveillance videos than in Catwoman. Berry is cloying in the film's early stages when she's playing insecure lonely Patience and she's more pathetically childlike than anything else. Once she's Catwoman though she's really terrible tilting her head for endless close-ups and giving lots of wide-eyed stares meant to conjure feline curiosity but that more recall George W. Bush's "deer-in-the-headlights" gaze. The screenplay makes a few lame attempts to observe the duality of women in the way Patience changes to Catwoman but it's not there in the performance. Yet Berry's turn is a career-peak gem compared to Stone who can't decide whether to play the power-mad Laurel Hedare as a broad cartoonish send-up or as someone connected to reality. Looking like a vampiric Susan Powter and barking sarcastic lines without a hint of emotional connection to her character Stone is just awful. On the plot's fringes Benjamin Bratt does his best as a police officer (gee what else) who is both infatuated with Berry and suspects her of murder.
The one-named French director Pitof (short for "pitoful"?) supposedly is a digital-imaging expert who has worked with City of Lost Children's Jean-Pierre Jeunet but you'd never know it here. Either he doesn't know much about directing actors or maybe he only gives directions in French. The effects--especially action scenes involving a digitalized version of Berry--move at such a chaotic breakneck pace that she looks completely phony. Plus there's absolutely no sequential logic whatsoever to where Catwoman moves and when--apparently invisibility is one of her superpowers. These awkward clumsy scenes are usually accompanied by distractingly loud music. Pitof's only other directing credit is some obscure French flick starring Gerard Depardieu…one hopes Catwoman will be his last.
A promising young playwright Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock) lives in New York far enough away from her Louisiana hometown. After she gives a damaging interview to Time magazine--damaging mainly to her mother Vivianne Abbott Walker (Ellen Burstyn) who doesn't take lightly to her daughter's intonations that she was not a good mother--the two women begin a feud. It threatens to destroy not only their relationship but Sidda's own plans to marry her longtime boyfriend Connor (Angus MacFadyen). Enter the Ya-Ya Sisterhood--Caro (Maggie Smith) Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan) and Necie (Shirley Knight) Vivi's lifelong best friends. To bring mother and daughter back together the women decide it's time for Sidda to learn about the Divine Secrets of their little clique--and about her mother's painful past. They tell Sidda stories about the young Vivi (Ashley Judd) who was full of promise and hope but how certain tragic events damaged her. The bond between these four older women is unshakable and the most honest element to the film. The sad news for the novel's fans however is that while the script manages to convey the true spirit of friendship it can't quite capture the magic of the book.
In a cast of many the film is chock-full of wonderful performances but it's the matured Ya-Yas who steal the show. Smith plays the tough Caro a lifelong smoker now saddled with emphysema with all the biting wit the actress is best known for while Knight plays the sweet no-nonsense Necie with just a hint of sarcasm. Flanagan the best of the three shines as the wealthy Teensy a recovering alcoholic who has faced demons herself. Her exchanges are some of the more memorable especially when after being told by an angry Vivi that she could knock Teensy into next week Teensy tells her friend "And I'll kick your ass on Thursday." Yet the film truly belongs to Burstyn and Judd as the different faces of Vivi. Burstyn is all at once the highly dramatic Southern beauty who has come to terms with (or remained steeped in denial about however you look at it) her painful past while Judd gets to show us the nitty-gritty of what actually happened to Vivi to harden her. Unfortunately the weakest member of this ensemble cast is Bullock as Sidda. She never quite convinces us she grew up in such an eccentric and terribly Southern environment. And not to leave out the men completely--James Garner plays Sidda's father Shep with quiet patience having survived life with his lady love who never loved him quite the same in return. The devoted Connor mirrors Shep but MacFadyen plays him with a lot more backbone.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) couldn't have chosen a better film to make as her directorial debut. Sure she might be pigeonholed forever as the "chick flick" girl but she probably doesn't care much. Khouri had been approached to adapt Wells' novel a few times over the last couple of years but never had the time to do it. When the right time came along Khouri wisely decided it was also time to take on the directing chores. Even as a novice the writer/director shows us she knows her way around a camera. The film captures that Southern feel lush and languid as the moss drips down from the trees. She also knows how to handle her actors too and is able to elicit great performances (although with the likes of Burstyn and Smith this isn't hard to do). The soundtrack also is an added bonus with a variation of music from jazz to Louisiana Cajun. Yet even with all this going for it Divine Secrets misses a beat. In a novel it's great to read stories about an eccentric Southern family but to have vignettes told to you as a framework for a movie it can slow a film down. You probably won't be able to drag your husband to go see this one.
Who needs rehearsals? Apparently not Diane Keaton, director and star of "Hanging Up."
In the comedy hit, Keaton, Meg Ryan and Lisa Kudrow play three ambitious sisters who are drawn closer together when their womanizing screenwriter father (Walter Matthau) becomes hospitalized. The spunky on-screen spontaneity suggests Keaton's loose-leash approach.
Indeed, according to Bill Robinson, the film's producer and Keaton's longtime partner in her Blue Relief production company: "Diane doesn't believe in a formal rehearsal process. She feels that you can kill whatever spontaneity and freshness the actors bring to the role if you keep putting them through their paces. The rehearsal process for her was having a read-through or going out to dinner and talking about the character."
Compare that rehearsal-lite approach with that adopted by the "American Beauty" team, wherein the players spent many weeks sitting around a table pouring over Alan Ball's Oscar-nominated screenplay. Their belief in rehearsing was imported from the world of theater, where live performance demands such discipline. Theater, in fact, nourished many of the "American Beauty" talents, including first-time feature director Sam Mendes and stars Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening -- all Oscar nominees.
Which is the wiser approach -- to rehearse or have dinner? Proof may lie in the Oscar count but, frankly, dinner sounds good to us.
FRENCH FILMMAKERS REMEMBERED: Famous French lover and sometime director Roger Vadim ("And God Created Woman," "Barbarella"), who died Feb. 11 at the age of 72, had five wives, including Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda, and affairs with many famous women, including Catherine Deneuve.
What some obituaries neglected to mention is that Vadim's last wife was Marie-Christine Barrault, who survives him and should be familiar to readers on these shores. Barrault, niece of the great French actor Jean-Louis Barrault ("Children of Paradise"), has starred in dozens of French films, including the art-house smash "Cousin, Cousine." The 1975 flick garnered four Oscar nominations, including one for Barrault as Best Actress.
American audiences may also remember Barrault for her performance in Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories."
While on the subject of recently deceased French filmmakers, let's mention the January passing of prolific producer Alain Poire, who had more than 250 films to his credit. Poire's specialty was comedy -- commercial comedies such as the French hits "La Boum" and "Les Visiteurs" and the more recent "Le Diner de cons" ("The Dinner Game"), which was also an art-house hit stateside.
Reminiscing about Poire, "Dinner Game" writer/director Francis Veber, who lives in Los Angeles and has also worked closely with DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg, told Buzz/Saw that "above all, because [Poire] loved to laugh, he was much more inclined toward comedy than more serious genres."
BUZZ CUTS ...
"Who Wants to Vet a Multimillionaire?": That's the new game show we're proposing in light of Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" debacle. The concept for "Who Wants to Vet ..." is simple. Three contestants compete to expose the show's subject -- a supposed multimillionaire who wants to migrate over to the "Who Wants to Marry ..." show. After the three contestants grill the subject in the first half-hour episode, they use the following week to go out into the field week to dig up dirt on the "multimillionaire." All four players return to "How to Vet ..." the following week for the second episode, in which the three contestants present their findings. The "multimillionaire" subject is then given the opportunity to rebut any of the findings and this second episode of "Who Wants to Vet ..." concludes with the audience voting upon whether the subject is worthy of getting married on the "Who Wants to Marry ..." show. The contestant who vets best by uncovering the most dirt gets a shot at being a guest commentator on Court TV. Best of all, Fox gets qualified multimillionaires who will ensure the life and integrity of its hit series ...
Blurber Melts?: A take-my-quote-please! blurbmeister -- one of those "reviewers" with an obscure media outlet who lends his or her name and a gushing quote to just about anything thrown up on the screen -- is experiencing serious burn-out, say Those Who Do Junkets. Seems the guy in question -- so cooperative that certain studios give him, among many perks, business-class seats when they fly him to L.A. junkets -- is dissing the execs he works with and trashing their films, as if too many freebies over too many years has brought him mental meltdown.
After a painful childhood as the illegitimate son of a harsh father semi-nutso pretty boy Martin (Alexis Loret) makes his way to Paris where he finds quick success as an Armani model and wins the heart of strong-willed violinist Alice ("The English Patient's" Juliette Binoche). But the memory of his unhappy upbringing and dark deeds past eats at the sullen protagonist's mind. Can Alice piece together the details of his tortured history before viewers tune out completely?
As usual the sympathetic Binoche dominates the film with her intelligence and radiant humanity. The complexity and emotional precision of her work is the main reason to watch the flick. Loret makes a strong impression in his feature film debut though he's mostly only called upon to stand around looking hunky and give us the occasional brooding frown. Mathieu Almaric provides compelling support as Martin's conflicted gay half-brother.
French auteur Andre Techine whose complex sensitive work in films such as "Wild Reeds" and "Thieves" made him an art-house favorite in the States loses his grip on "Alice and Martin's" narrative early on. Skipping sequences crucial to the logical flow of the story putting too much emphasis on a "mystery" plot point with an obvious resolution he delivers a drama that is all the more frustrating to watch for the fine work that goes into individual scenes. His loose approach to story structure which proved so refreshing in the 1993 ensemble drama "My Favorite Season " strips "Alice and Martin" of momentum wasting all the gorgeous visuals he's conjured up with cinematographer Caroline Champetier.