Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (USA: 2014): On Parenting and Museums

As a series, the Night at the Museum films have been mostly premise without much payoff for adults. However, I think the first one was among the best zany, live action kids films released by Hollywood in the past decade (that’s not saying much). The second one had lost its purpose and the final installment has suffered from that derailment. If we ignore the special effects, at its heart, Night at the Museum had been about a father an son overcoming divorce and a loss of respect. A bumbling father made good, so to speak. The parenting issues were dropped from the second installment, and that film simply became a special effects comedy at the Smithsonian instead of the American Museum of Natural History. The father and son were simply best friends. Secret of the Tomb attempts to bring the family drama back into the picture, but awkwardly in a way that makes the picture pure juvenile fantasy.

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Top Five (USA: 2014): Chris Rock in his Zone

“Top Five” is Chris Rock’s third pass in the director’s chair and first attempt at a more serious movie. It is a comedy, but relatively low key one for Saturday Night Live alums. It tells intertwined stories, both of which are well-worn. One is a straightforward romantic comedy about man having second thoughts about a pending wedding after meeting a much better match. The second is of an actor, Dre Allen (Rock), whose star is starting to fade a little, who is trying to stretch his career in a new direction, framed as an interview with a reporter. That the reporter (Rosario Dawson) happens to be the new potential love interest for Dre makes for a rather choppy narrative, but nonetheless one with many comedic highlights.

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Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (China: 2013): Demon Hunter Hustle

Stephen Chow returns to the director’s chair for the first time in seven years to create a prequel to the oft-filmed and always beloved Chinese classic novel, Journey to the West. Chow is probably best known outside of the China-zone for Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and Sholin Soccer (2001), but he has had a long career portraying comedic heroes. After Kung Fu Hustle, he surprisingly went relatively quiet, with only 2008’s CJ7 on the docket as a starring vehicle. I was pleased to find out that he was back, although he doesn’t make an appearance in the film. Last years Journey to the West is apparently the all time box office record holder for a Chinese language film, and I probably would have sought out the movie because of that. However, Kung Fu Hustle established Chow as a comedic director worth watching and I was curious to see if he would showcase those skills again and if he’d spent that time off extending himself.

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Big Hero Six: (USA: 2014): Animation for the boys

Big Hero Six is Disney’s latest foray into the boys’ animation film market. If it can be compared to any recent release, it reminded me of How to Train Your Dragon. Like that movie, the adolescent hero of the story, Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter), must overcome grief, parental loss and thrusts himself into adulthood quickly to save his city. The emotional weight of the story is carried by his feelings for his lost older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), who dies in a fire trying to save his professor. Whether his memory will inspire Hiro to be one of the good guys, or his loss will turn him towards vengeance is the major conflict of the movie, which has far too few conflicts to sustain it for a full 90 minutes.

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Nightcrawler (USA: 2014): Is the seedy side of the news business the only side worth telling?

It has not been a good month for the news media in the movies I have been reviewing. In Birdmanthe New York Times theater critic is shown to be unprofessional, promising to write a negative review to kill a play that she hasn’t seen. In Gone Girlsensationalist news journalists are shown to be easily manipulated into writing a narrative that ends up covering up a ghastly crime. And now we have Nightcrawler, a movie about a petty thief who finally finds his vocation as a freelance cameraman selling footage to a local news station in Los Angeles.  There seems to be a shortage of crusading journalists this month, Kill the Messenger aside.

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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (USA: 2014)

Alejandro Iñárritu’s stage-door film, Birdman (2014) tells the story of a faded Hollywood star (Michael Keaton) attempting to make a comeback and establish a legacy in an Broadway play. It is a comedy – a dark one – and filled will characters who are mostly unlikable, but suited for the life in the theater. Keaton’s Riggan Thomson used to play the eponymous action hero, but walked away from “Birdman IV” 20 years ago. He is still in the public mind, but obviously hasn’t done much since. He is the writer, director, and star of a play based on the short stories of Raymond Carver, an author, whose early death from alcoholism imitates that of our star, who was famous, but never realized his full potential. 

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The Skeleton Twins (USA: 2014): What siblings do when childhood is over

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star in Craig Johnson’s offbeat comedy about siblings relating to each other in ways that others cannot. If many of our troubles as adults stem from problems we carry with us from childhood, who else to better understand them than someone who has lived them with you? If this were not a comedy, it would be a very difficult drama to watch. It touches on depression, suicide, child sexual abuse, death, abandonment, compulsion, grief, alcoholism, loveless marriage and infidelity. For the most part, these issues aren’t played for laughs or shock value. The humor in the film comes from watching a caustic Hader and revitalized Wiig play off each other in ways that make us believe that they were once very close and happy together as siblings and want to enjoy those experiences again. At the same time, they hurt each other, often thinking that they are only doing what is best for the other (and they often are).

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The Boxtrolls (USA: 2014): Occupy Cheesebridge?

It’s not often that I want to rate a children’s film based on its politics. But since The Box Trolls is a movie about a human boy who convinces a socially despised and persecuted group to fight back, a political consideration is in order. Visually, the movie is outstanding, if a little dark with its brown color palette. There is probably enough goofiness in the movie to amuse children, and there is a little bit of a love story with a message about the importance parenting and being yourself that should make it feel good. But it doesn’t succeed. Those messages end up looking like small curds when what we want is a big slice of cheese.

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Love is Strange (US: 2014) – An update of a classic slightly misses

Love is Strange is an update of Make Way for Tomorrow, Leo McCarey’s Depression-era film about a elderly couple forced to live apart due to a late-in-life financial setback. After Ben (Alfred Molina) is fired from his job as a music instructor at a Catholic school, he and is new husband, Ben (John Lithgow) find that they are unable to continue to pay their mortgage and do not have enough equity in their home to find a new place. Moving out of New York City is out of the question, but staying in New York means splitting up. George moves in with a younger gay couple in Manhattan and Ben moves in with his nephew’s family in Brooklyn.

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