‘Night at the Museum’ sequel a great surprise

Ben Stiller returns as museum security guard Larry Daley in ‘Night at the Museum 2’. The first film revolved around his struggle to retain order in a museum – when a magical tablet brought all the exhibits and sculptures literally to life. Flash forward three years. Daley is now a millionaire off of selling such hot products as glow in the dark flashlights, leaving behind his old job as museum night guard.

But the museum undergoes reconstruction, sending all its old exhibits to the Smithsonian National Archives – and the magical tablet with it. When Daley realizes this he flies to Washington DC and sneaks into the underground National Archives – only to realize that the tablet has brought to life every single exhibit, person, painting, sculpture and plane in all 17 Smithsonian museums.

An assortment of villains – Napoleon Bonaparte, Al Capone (cleverly rendered in black-and-white), Ivan the Terrible, and an evil prince named Kahmunrah come out and seize the tablet to use for their own evil ends. Daley then teams up with Amelia Earhart to retrieve the tablet, save Larry’s friends, and restore order throughout the Smithsonian complex.

The film is littered with dozens upon dozens of cameos. Ricky Gervais, Saturday Night Live star Bill Hader as General Custer, Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, the Tuskegee Airmen, Owen Wilson as Jebediah, and Jay Baruchel. Jonah Hill has a brief, but hilarious role as a tight-wound Smithsonian security guard. Even the Jonas Brothers show up as three singing baby cherubs. (This produced at least 15 teenage squeals in my theater) Ben Stiller does admittedly look a little bored, but he’s generally funny.

However, its two actors that make the movie click. Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart brings an enthusiastic zing to the whole film, gleefully delivering exclamations like “We’ve been jimjacked!” and “Great Gatsby!”, and spontaneously kissing Ben Stiller from time to time. And Hank Azaria, a voice actor from ‘The Simpsons’, plays the evil Kahmunrah as an eccentric freak with an odd lisp, but is still convincingly evil. He gets the best scenes. A personal favorite of mine being when Darth Vader and Oscar the Grouch audition for being Kahmunrah’s minions, whilst Kahmunrah belittles Darth Vader about his cape and his heavy breathing.

Special effects are present in virtually every frame of the film. Although a couple sequences are redundant, (Daley and Earhart flying her plane out of the Air and Space museum) some moments are particularly awe-inspired. There is an extent of magic to seeing a walking, talking, full-size Lincoln Memorial interact with Ben Stiller, and eventually plays a big role in the film’s climax.

Long story short, it’s much better than the mostly bland first film, and I think that can be equally attributed to the great cast and the awesome visual effects. And the fact that the first wasn’t very good. It improves on the original. A good choice for families. B+

‘Ghosts of Girlfriends Past’ bears cliches of movies past

A theory I’ve developed when it comes to romantic comedies: The plot is almost exactly the same every time, despite varying in scenario, concept, etc. What determines a good one from a bad one is how much the characters develop over the film and frankly, how witty and funny it is.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is yet another high-concept romantic comedy, but it borrows that high-concept from A Christmas Carol. (Sorry there Mr. Dickens) And the romance in the film feels conceited and tacked on. And the comedy? Non-existent. Beyond that two-second shot of the bride running to her destroyed wedding cake, screaming, “NO!!” The film begs us to symphatize with a self-centered jerk, and at the end that jerk is replaced in two seconds with a goody-two-shoes charmer.

Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey, smooth and sly as ever) is a fashion photographer that gains and breaks up with girlfriends by the minute. (This is emphasized when in the beginning, he breaks up with three girls at the same time via conference call) He is cynical, selfish, and proclaims to ‘not believe in love’.

When he is invited to his brothers wedding for a weekend, he encounters his childhood girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Garner). After making a fool of himself at dinner, he is visited by the ghost of his old Uncle Wayne (a deliciously loathable Michael Douglas), who has taught him his irresponsible ways. He will be visited by three ghosts to represent all his past, present, and future girlfriends. They will take him through his own romantic past, to help him get back his one love – Jenny.

Matthew McConaughey, in his seemingly nineteenth consecutive romantic comedy role, plays a complete, utter jerk. We are forced to stick with this jerk for 90 minutes, while he literally experiences his past over again. But suddenly he opts to be good for his crush, Jenny. As Jenny, Jennifer Garner has 15 minutes during which she looks…bored. Michael Douglas chews up the scenery as his Uncle Wayne, who despite being a ghost is probably the most developed character in the film.

We all know the ending, unless this is your first chick flick. The performances are (mostly) bland, its unfunny, without much in the way of romance, or humor, which tends to mostly be the saving point of chick flicks. Pointless garbage. D

‘Terminator Salvation’ a mixed bag: mostly good

‘Terminator Salvation’ is a giant departure from the other three films. The original three were mostly chase films, although the first was mostly horror and the others were mainly action chase films. This fourth film sports an all-new cast, all-new director, and all-new tone and plot. It’s completely about the war between the evil computer-controlled machines and humans, instead of focusing on humans trying to evade just one cyborg. Naturally, this makes for a film with a much wider scale, and it juggles about 8 characters. Some are very well-developed, and interesting. Others are there simply to advance the plot.

The first three films about the effort to keep John Connor alive. Several machines from an all-ruling computer company Cyberdyne, or ‘Terminators’, were sent back in time to assassinate him, as his leadership will win the future war of men vs. machines. Eventually Cyberdyne triggered a missile launch that annihilated most of the world. The surviving humans were either put into camps by the machines or escaped and formed a resistance against them.

The year is 2018. John Connor is a high-ranking soldier within the Resistance, and stumbles upon a new plan for a much deadlier Terminator. Meanwhile, a man named Marcus Wright breaks out of a Cyberdyne holding facility. His last memory is from 2003, of being on death row. When the two unite, they hatch a plan to potentially destroy Cyberdyne. But Kyle Reese, a young teenager who via time travel will eventually became Connor’s father, is being targeted by thousands of machines. Can Connor rescue Reese, defeat Cyberdyne and remain alive?

The film has gained a bit of notoriety because of the star Christian Bale’s infamous meltdown on the set (reportedly 34 F-bombs in a 3-minute clip). However the performances are all very good. Bale brings a gruff demeanor yet still maintains a deep vulnerability as John Connor. A problem is his personality changes throughout the series. In Terminator 2 John was a 10-year old punk and petty thief, in the third he was a 20-something scared pansy, and now he’s a gruff, tough soldier. Rapper Common has a brief role, and he’s decent. Ron Howard’s daughter, Bryce Dallas (of Spider-Man 3) has a role as John’s wife, Kate. A major problem is that she had such a major, vital role in the third and here she is reduced to about 5 minutes. You learn nothing about her, and I wouldn’t even know who she was had I not seen the third.

There are two very memorable roles in the film: Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright. He’s a mysterious traveler with a very big secret, and for most of the film we don’t know whether to trust him or not. Worthington steals every scene he’s in, it’s a very intense, demanding character and he pulls it off. The other memorable performance: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite not filming a single scene himself, digital effects use his likeness from 1984 to project his original character, the T-800. (for those unfamiliar, a killing machine disguised as a human) I won’t reveal how he’s used, but hardcore fans will be very pleased.

The film is chock-full of references to the original trilogy. Since it’s a departure in theme and plot, ‘Salvation’ sports pretty much non-stop explosions and chases. Many pop up randomly for no reason, others truly serve the plot. A personal favorite of mine being a scene where Marcus and Kyle evade a giant hovercraft, air tanker, and 70-foot tall killing robot. A common attribute being that they are mind-blowing in execution. Another great part is the cinematography. It tends to jump from shaky camera-work to stunning long-shots of incredible action, but its all great.

The weakness, like so many action films, lies the dialogue and plotting. Many lines my friend and I accurately predicted to ourselves about 5 seconds before they were uttered. Other lines we repeated to ourselves for the rest of the day, each one to roaring laughter. Many plot holes ensue, such as: John Connor rigs a couple fuel cells used by Terminators to explode, stating that it will detonate a building. However when fighting a Terminator up close (fuel cells intact) Connor has no problem blowing it up 10 feet away with a rocket launcher.

My general liking of ‘Terminator Salvation’ is because of the great performances, incredible action, and the fact that I’ve worshipped the first two for 5 years. However, the awful dialogue and under-developed characters seriously slows it down. Great entertainment. B

‘Star Trek’ the best film in months

Imagine a ‘Star Trek’ that isn’t convoulted beyond belief, that you don’t need a Trek fan-to-English dictionary to understand. Where half-hour conversations about morals don’t make up the majority of the running-time. Where you actually, truly understand what the heck is going on, without worrying about Klingons or Romulans or Vulcans or whatever. Simple, pure fun, that could also please the devoted Star Trek fans, or ‘Trekkies’, or ‘Trekkers’ (of which there are many). That could please even those who viciously oppose that it stands for (of which there are many). Ladies, gentlemen, germs, teenage boys, enter ‘Star Trek’.

The film is set in a separate universe from all of the original films. It starts around 2400 or something in space, with a starship suddenly being destroyed by another, much bigger one, that is populated by a race called Romulans. They apparently have an agenda for revenge, although the leader of the ship, Nero, is tight-lipped on what for. During the ship’s evacuation a baby is born, named James Kirk. Flash forward 20 years, on Earth. Kirk is an intelligent albeit reckless rebel, driving cars off cliffs for kicks. He is recruited to join to Starfleet Academy, to take up the legacy of his father and work on starships.

Meanwhile on a separate planet, Spock is a young who feels shame because despite being raised to ignore emotions and concentrate on logic (its the Vulcan way), his half-human heritage burdens him in this process. Kirk befriends Uhura and a medic named Leonard McCoy upon joining the Starfleet Academy. He is suspended after cheating on a test, but boards the new, giant USS Enterprise anyway. Despite ethical conflict with Captain Spock, they must bond together to defeat Nero.

It’s rather hard to fully explain the plot without giving too much away. The plot sounds fairly simple but it’s much more complex, involving power drills, nuclear weapons, time travel, etc. However, the film decently paces itself so that all these revelations aren’t overwhelming. In addition, it unleashes several major action sequences. Ditto the very end where the two giant starships face off, or a scene where three people parachute from the starship onto a drill thats suspended 5,000 feet into the air. It also pokes fun but respects the original films, retaining the original characters and their quirks, to the original ships, to even the original sound effects.

The acting is top-notch all around. Simon Pegg is very funny as the ship engineer Scotty, and Karl Urban is good as medic Leonard McCoy. Chris Pine has a certain bravura as James Kirk that demonstrates charm and wit. But there are two performances that put this film above and beyond: Zachary Quinto as a young Spock. He speaks almost mechanically, but effectively demonstrates the inner emotional turmoil that Spock feels. His scenes with Kirk are the best in the film, with an undertone of logic versus instinct. The very best performance in the film is also Spock – but the much older Spock played by the original, Leonard Nimoy. I won’t reveal how he figures into the plot and how he is alongside a young version of him, but it’s a tender, mostly somber, occasionally funny performance. The visual effects are stunning, as are the sound effects. The moments where there’s just silence in space are even more effective than the big flashy action.

I could perhaps liken ‘Star Trek’ and its predecessors to ‘Batman Begins’ and its predecessors: A shot of adrenaline and a heart transplant to a dying franchise. A corny analogy, but relevant nonetheless: ‘Star Trek’ removes what made the recent Star Trek’s so hard to comprehend. It adds more action. It presents engaging, interesting versions of the characters. Every single actor in ‘Star Trek’ likely faces stardom now. Here’s hoping this new version of the series lives long and prospers. A

Russell Crowe thriller ‘State of Play’ surprisingly great

Russell Crowe plays a journalist investigating the death of a woman linked to a Congressman in State of Play. It stands out from most standard political thrillers mainly because of the fantastic ensemble and taut script, although the ending is sort of a cop-out. It makes countless twists and turns and when you think the story’s all wrapped up and done with, it drops another plot line on you. It’s as smart as a thriller can get. Thankfully the twists never get too outlandish, which has been something of a problem with movies recently.

One night two men are murdered under a bridge. The next day, a woman is killed in an apparent accident at a train station. The woman was a chief advisor for an ambitious Congressman named Stephen Collins (Affleck), and was also secretly his mistress. Collins is clearly shaken. His journalist friend Cal McAffrey (Crowe) notes a connection: Collins is currently holding hearings against PointCorp, a corporation which could potentially seize all emails, all phone taps, and even the national defense infrastructure. McAffrey teams up with blogger Della Frye (McAdams) to try to follow the connections, but they stumble upon an even broader and more violent conspiracy than they thought.

Given Russell Crowe’s track record, I was expected a decent movie. But what I got was the most engrossing film so far this year. It unravels a plot twist every 15 minutes, but never feels gimmicky or contrived. It continuously maintains a coherent plot and doesn’t pull a giant, will-destroying twist in the last half-hour. (I’m lookin’ ya dead in the eye, Eagle Eye) Russell Crowe has never really played a hippie-type role before, and it’s interesting to see. He pulls it off well. It seems with his films whatever type of character he plays is expressed in his hairdo. Helen Mirren, in her first actual performance since her Oscar-winning ‘The Queen’, has 10 minutes and 20 lines as the narcissistic newspaper editor and they’re all golden. Ben Affleck is really good as a secretive Congressman. He’s rather somber the whole film, and although some lines are delivered weakly its a strong performance.

The ending is a bit disappointing. I only say that not because it’s bad from a narrative perspective, but that I was so immersed in the plot and so tense by the end that when it ended it somewhat jolts you. In side roles, the normally lovable Jason Bateman is a very convincing hot-shot jerk and Jeff Daniels as a potentially corrupt State Representative is great. He is always very good in these roles as politicians or cops or TV executives, although I wish he’d do another comedy in the vein of ‘Dumb & Dumber’.

In short, ‘State of Play’ is a great surprise. It has an incredibly tense third act, the performances are all great (Jason Bateman & Helen Mirren are notable) and there are twists and turns everywhere. Now why can’t more movies do this? A-

‘Wolverine’ a mindless compilation of exposition and action. And yet, somewhat entertaining.

‘X-Men’ has always an entertaining, if inconsistent series. By inconsistent I mean keeping action and backstory balanced in the first two and mindless, relentless, well-orchestrated action running rampant in the third. The newest one, ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’, opts to show the backstory and, well, origins of the primary character, Wolverine. Essentially, it’s all there in the title.

The film starts in the Northwest Territories of Canada in 1842 (although the Northwest Territories weren’t claimed in 1842) with a young boy named James confronting an intruder in a cabin. When he intends to punch him in the stomach three spikes randomly pop out of his knuckles and stab the man, killing him. When the man reveals he is his father, James and his similarly-mutated brother Victor go on the run.

Since oddly they stop aging at around 40, James and Victor fight side by side in the Civil War, in both World Wars, and Vietnam. In Vietnam they are recruited by a General Stryker to join a special team of “mutants” (people with extraordinary powers). When James refuses to kill civilians, he resigns. Six years later, James (henceforth called Logan), is living in Canada with his girlfriend. When she is murdered by his brother, alongside other mutants, Logan (henceforth called Wolverine) swears revenge.

Judging from the trailers and TV commercials alone, I thought to myself, “How can they cram so many characters into one little movie?” Well, that’s the thing. One of the problems with Wolverine, and with the whole X-Men series in general, is that it juggles waaayyy too many characters into less than two hours, unsuccessfully so.

The action and special effects are obviously the main draw, and they deliver. They seem a bit forced and artificial at times, but the special effects are much better than the somewhat cartoonish ones of the last film. Particular highlights are the opening credits and the final sequence atop a nuclear plant.

The film wears the influence of The Dark Knight on its sleeve. Naturally, it’s very dark and gritty, and pushes PG-13 a little bit. Beware scenes where Hugh Jackman is injected with several syringes simeltaenously and one half-a-second but still present full-frontal shot of Hugh Jackman.

Oddly, the performances are the strongest part of the film. Hugh Jackman worked out relentlessly for this film, and it shows several times. He rivals Mike Tyson and dare I say, 50 Cent for the title of Biggest. Biceps. Ever. It helps that he’s a fantastic actor as well, he convincingly portrays an enraged, bottled-up man and were his performance not great, the film would fall flat. However, Liev Schrieber steals the show as Logan’s mutant brother, Victor/Sabertooth. He’s clearly having a blast, and he’s probably the most flat-out evil X-Men villain yet.

In very short terms (I have a bedtime, you see). Hugh Jackman = Great. Liev Schrieber = Fantastic. Action = Great, if arbitrary. Result = A good start for summer popcorn flicks. B+