Monday, March 22, 2010

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

"Crimey, we've been jimmy-jacked!" Luckily, for fans of the prequel to this action-packed, antic comedy, this is not the case (jimmy-jacked being "screwed," by the way). Ben Stiller (Meet the Parents, Tropic Thunder) returns as Larry Daley, who's given up the uniform as night guard at the Museum of Natural History for the driver's seat at Daley Industries, a corporation that sells glow-in-the-dark flashlights, unlosable key rings, and over-sized dog bones. While visiting his old haunt, Larry learns that the exhibits are taking the boot for interactive holograms and shipped to the federal archives of the Smithsonian Institute. What's not being shipped, however, is the tablet of Ahkmanrah, an ancient device that bears the power to bring all the exhibits to life after sunset. When the tablet is stolen by Dexter, the capuchin monkey, and shipped to Washington, Larry is shocked to discover that not only have the exhibits come to life (in the biggest museum in the world), but the evil pharoah, Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), is intent on using the tablet to conquer the world by opening the gates of the Underworld. With the help of Amelia Earhart, Teddy Roosevelt, General George Custer, and Sacagawea (Amy Adams, Robin Williams, Bill Hader, and Mizuo Peck), Larry must keep the tablet out of Kahmunrah's reach by outsmarting his daunting trio of cronies: Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Al Capone (Christopher Guest, Alain Chabat, and John Bernthal). What ensues is an epic and hilarious showdown as the biggest names in history clash swords and tentacles in a mind-blowing adventure that is incredibly, exceptionally, and (literally) larger than life.

When he wasn't selling any color model T, as long as it was black, Henry Ford, with the grace of Tacitus and the air of Caesar (Sid, not Julius), amused his clientele with the observation that "History is bunk." "Bunk" meaning traditional and not worth a "tinker's damn" to the present day. Ford's aversion for the past may have been due to the sheer volume of names, dates, events and customs verging on a deluge of confused and dubious data. Unfortunately, Battle of the Smithsonian has the ill luck to be swept up in the tide. While not being completely and utterly "bunk," the film suffers from having one too many museums, leading to a thousand too many cast members, who might be called extras if everyone weren't supposed to be someone famous. In addition to the original cast, audiences must process the Thinker, the Ballerina, Aphrodite, the Tuskegee Airman, the Wright Brothers, Abraham Lincoln, American Gothic, three Cupids, six Einsteins, and - (insert deep breath here) - a full-blown NASA launch crew.

The initial "Oh my God!" reaction (which surfaces upon seeing Hank Azaria in a tunic with a lisp) loses all enthusiasm after a perky introduction to Amy Adams, whose gutsy performance as Amelia Earhart is the true high-light of this quirky, but teeming film. The rest of the characters, with the exception of the central supporting cast, come off as little more than a confused mob of tricorns, ushankas and three-pieced suits. Slapstick comedy (a hallmark of any Stiller film) has its fine points with funny man Jonah Hill and Simpson's favorite, Hank Azaria, playing Abbot to Stiller's passive-agressive Costello, but quickly becomes overbearing, verging on corny. On the money, Battle of the Smithsonian is a charming and entertaining family flick, but one that is sure to go down in history as a side-show act for a number of high-profile actors in period garb.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Last Sin Eater: Movie Review

Based on the novel by Christian-fiction author Francince Rivers, The Last Sin Eater is director Michael Langdon Jr.'s approach to the gothic side of the American frontier drama. Circa 1850, in a Welsh community on the Appalachian territory, the death of her sister Ellen has haunted ten-year-old Cadi Forbes, whose mother, Thea, cannot overcome the grief from the mishap which killed her youngest child. When Cadi's grandmother, Gorawen, dies, the villagers summon the Sin Eater, a chosen-one condemned to purge dead souls by taking their sins upon himself. During the ritual, Cadi commits a forbidden act - looking into the eyes of the Sin Eater, thus tainting her own soul with his being. Consumed by the desire to cleanse her soul of the guilt she feels for Ellen's death, Cadi seeks him out with the help of her friend, Fagan, and Lilybet, an angelic spirit in the form of a child, whom only Cadi can see. Meanwhile, the community is off-set by the arrival of a nameless missionary who defies the commands of Brogan Kai, the self-proclaimed village leader. As she unravels the mystery of the Sin Eater's past, Cadi discovers that he is not the demon whom the villager's fear, but a tender soul tortured by an agonizing duty which separates him from the woman he loves. Only by accepting the word of God and bringing to light the brutal history of her village can Cadi save an innocent man from a shameful sacrifice and relieve her family from the suffering that has plagued them since her sister's death.

In parts of feudal Scotland and England, a sin eater was a person, usually a beggar, chosen to cleanse the sins of the dead in a ritual that involved the consumption of bread and wine, which were left on the dead person's breast during their burial. The ritual ended with the recitation of a prayer ("For thy peace, I pawn my own soul"), after which the sin eater would return to his abode of solitude until his service was needed once more. In this slow-paced, but emotional film, Peter Wingfield (Highlander) is the Sin Eater, who skulks about the woodlands of Dead Man's Mountain in a drab ensemble likened to the Ghost of Christmas Past. Langdon's attempt at diffusing fear on the audience falls flat, but not without the reservation that perhaps it is not fear that he wishes to achieve, but sympathy for a man ostracized by his fellow men in correspondence with a crude and primitive tradition. Aside from the emotional venue, however, the film lacks, for the most part, one vital element: good acting. This may be the fault of two things: 1) Bad actors or 2) The strained attempts at establishing time and setting by having all the characters speak in the vernacular. Audiences may find the up-lifting soundtrack by composer Mark McKenzie to be easier on the ears. Even Louise Fletcher, in her role as the village elder, Miz Elda, appears unskilled, with a Welsh accent that is laudable only when compared with the almost incomprehensible speech of Stewart Finlay-McLennan, who rubs off as a raging idiot rather than a domineering antagonist. With regards to plot, Henry Thomas (E.T., Legends of the Fall), as the unnamed missionary, appears as a bump in the road with an intruding performance that flows in the written story, but fails to properly adapt to the 117 minutes on camera. Fletcher (an Academy Award winner) and Thomas (a Golden Globe Nominee) are little more than a big name and a not-so-big name used by producers as a promotional tool. One name that should be noted, however, is Liana Liberato, who went from a small part in a episode of CSI: Miami to the role of Cadi Forbes, and is the only believable actor, from her "dunnas" to her "glyns," to overall bearing, in the entire film. Fundamentally, The Last Sin Eater is a garden-variety, verging on dull, production that lovers of religious media will enjoy immensely, but, to the average viewer, is little more than a satisfactory book-to-big screen adaptation.

The Last Sin Eater

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Bucket List: Movie Review

The golden boys of Hollywood come together for this hilarious and touching film that takes the subject of "things to do before you die" to the limit. Morgan Freeman (Driving Ms. Daisy, Invictus) stars as Carter Chambers, an auto-mechanic and die-hard Jeopardy fan, whose diagnosis of terminal cancer has landed him in a hospital room beside Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), a billionaire executive with an insatiable love for women, wine, women, kopi luwak, and women. When Edward is given six months to live, Carter is prompted to write "The Bucket List," a metaphorical list of things to do before he kicks the bucket. Edward, however, has something else in mind - a trip around the world that turns all of Carter's dreams into reality and pushes the boundary of the imagination to the ends of the earth. After a joy ride in a Shelby Mustang, a stint at sky diving, a safari in Africa, and a motor cycle trip on the Great Wall of China, Carter is gripped by the realization that he has yet to embrace the greatest wonder of his existence - the family that awaits him in the home where his patient and loving wife, Virginia (Beverly Todd) is eager for his return. Carter is not the only one with unfinished business, however. A reluctant Edward must swallow his fear and wise-guy attitude to reconcile with the daughter who disowned him years ago. Such is the nature of an unlikely friendship between two souls whose any moment could be their last, but whose every moment is the first on the adventure of a lifetime.

Of the voices in film and television that have been labeled "distinct," Morgan Freeman's ranks with James Earl Jones (a.k.a. "the mellifluous) and Don LaFontaine, whose talent was such that the obscure title "that voice from the movies" could not have been more definite. Freeman's crisp and authoritative sotto voce is that of a story teller, a voice we imagine to be in the range of Aesop or Homer in a time when nomadic bards were the rock stars of their day. Freeman has narrated such critically acclaimed films as The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby, and The March of the Penguins. In The Bucket List, Freeman's subtle and soothing narration is the iron thread which ties together the mind-blowing antics of Hollywood funny-man, Jack Nicholson. Despite an IV and patient gown (which calls up terms that are less endearing) Nicholson is certainly the best-looking octogenarian passed off by the industry since Estelle Getty. The only thing old about his portrayal of Edward Cole is the trite execution of outlandish comedy. A death-defying jump from an airplane and a joy ride in a Mustang draw disappointed sighs of "blah" rather than warm laughs. Audiences will be more amused to hear Morgan Freeman scream like a skinny teen from a horror film, not to mention learning that the world's rarest and most expensive beverage is made from animal crap.

Beverly Todd (Lean on Me, Crash) gives a memorable performance as Carter's determined and steadfast wife, Virginia. Sean Hayes (Will and Grace, The Cat in the Hat), however, is decidedly bland and out of place as Matthew, Edward's assistant (whom he calls Thomas because Matthew is "too biblical"). Hayes's most notable scenes take place in the beginning and end of the film, when viewers have no idea as to his identity or his purpose to the main plot. Nevertheless, the scenes give the film a round-circle feel, a fitting aspect for a piece on the subject of life. That death is merely a pit-stop and life a mere circuit on which beginning and end are one and the same are the main themes of this contemplative film that will charm viewers to live life to it's fullest, for "everyone is everyone" and years "like smoke through a key-hole."

The Bucket List