Wednesday 17 December 2014

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb review

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG, 98 mins)
Director: Shawn Levy
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Talk about stretching an idea so thin you can start to see through it. The premise of the first Night at the Museum movie eight years ago was that a magical tablet could bring the exhibits of a New York museum to life at night, which was realised through what at the time were fairly nifty computer generated effects.

Ben Stiller was Larry, the night security guard at the museum who got caught up in the middle of the mayhem when dinosaur skeletons and Attila the Hun starting running amok. Now Larry is in charge of putting on a show for dignitaries, who think the animated exhibits are special effects.

Before we get to that there’s a prologue set in 1930s Egypt that gives us a bit of half-hearted background on the tablet, as some Indiana Jones-style tomb raiders disturb it amid the standard warnings of a curse.

For reasons never explained this curse involved absolutely nothing happening for nearly 80 years, but now the tablet is corroding and the exhibits are going screwy. The solution, invented by the film’s writers for no reason other than it would be nice to go to London, is that they must go to the British Museum to try to free the curse.

Or something. Because none of it follows a remotely logical or coherent path, and there’s really very little to it in terms of threat or excitement. The situation is paper-thin, the jokes are lame and the special effects aren’t even particularly special. It looks pretty horrible too, the direction is lacklustre and it seems scaled down from previous instalments.

There’s the need for some uninspired padding involving Larry’s teenage son, and whether he will or won’t go to college. Another exciting subplot to look out for in the fourth film; will Larry do the dishes or leave them until the morning?

Yet for some reason it’s perfectly watchable and affable, mostly thanks to a game cast, and mostly thanks to Dan Stevens. He pops up as Sir Lancelot and has some fun with the action shenanigans while also demonstrating a nice way with comic timing as he fails to understand anything going on around him.

We also get the final acting appearance of Robin Williams, who reprises his role as Theodore Roosevelt. It’s hardly a fitting send off, with he and just about every character other than Larry and Lance given insufficient material to make any impression.

In the end this is unlikely to be remembered as one of the great trilogies. Really it barely passes muster, and in a few years there might not even be many people who remember it was a trilogy at all.

But it rattles along quickly and it’s never dull, which actually counts for something. And if it looks like it’s only scraping a third star by the skin of its teeth, which it is, that’s because it’s Christmas, and it’s because we get to see Dick Van Dyke dance.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies review

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12A/PG-13, 144 mins)
Director: Peter Jackson
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

It’s been a fair old trek to get to here, this final part of the Hobbit prequel trilogy. And, much like the experiences of its characters, it’s been a frequently exhausting and arduous journey punctuated by individual moments of relief and enjoyment.

The late decision to make three films rather than two has meant it’s often felt like you were journeying across Middle Earth in real time, and it all began to smack of cashing in. We certainly get value for money in terms of minutes in the cinema, even if this finale is a relatively brisk sub-2.5 hours, but an awful lot of that time feels like we’re treading water.

Has it been worth it in the end? Will many people plough through the six-film marathon of these plus the Lord of the Rings trilogy or will they, like now happens with Star Wars, judiciously skip the weaker entries in order to get to the good stuff?

Certainly one element where this is likely to score with fans is in the linking done to Rings. Some of it might be a bit clunky and forced, but more often than not the bridge building is both fun and evocative and likely to put a Christmas re-watch of Rings on a lot of people’s agendas.

But for now, we rejoin this poor relation directly after the end of last year’s second film, as dragon Smaug wreaks his desolation on the village of Laketown. Exposing the somewhat arbitrary stopping point of Part 2, this episode is swiftly resolved, leaving dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) in control of the mountain hall of Erebor and its enormous piles of gold.

The trouble is he’s turned mad with power, and a lot of time is spent on Thorin’s intransigence, which is threatening to be the catalyst for war, with the elves and men also ready to stake a claim to the treasure. But it’s nowhere near as compelling as the hold the One Ring had over Frodo and mostly there’s a lot of sitting about, which at least makes a change from all the walking in the first two movies.

Having really shone in the second movie, Martin Freeman is sidelined here as Bilbo becomes a minor character in his own movie. But when Bilbo does get involved, he proves the worth of Hobbits and offers a reminder of why we love them.

It’s difficult though to have any great investment in these characters beyond Bilbo and wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), which is a major issue. Billy Connolly turns up as a dwarf king with bizarrely computer enhanced features, to swear and stick the nut on orcs but, as ever, almost none of Bilbo’s companions stand out.

Lord of the Rings succeeded because we cared deeply about the Fellowship, but that’s sadly lacking here. It also worked because it blended real world locations with brilliantly realised visual effects; now it looks like none of it might be real at all, especially darker scenes. Just because Peter Jackson has the ability to create anything with CGI, it doesn’t mean he should. Frankly at times it looks ridiculous, and when you’ve got dwarves riding rams up mountainsides you’ve probably gone too far.

This is highlighted even more by the truly horrific High Frame Rate process, which makes proceedings look like a filmed play, shiny and inauthentic and totally lacking in filmic texture. It’s not too bad when no one has to move but most of the time it’s embarrassing, and it’s astonishing that someone thought something that looked as bad as this was acceptable to project for top dollar.

Still, Jackson is more than capable of conjuring greatness in bursts, starting with Smaug’s terrifying, fire-breathing onslaught, even if we then have to wade through the added guff and padding of the arguments among the Laketown survivors.

But the movie is called The Battle of the Five Armies, and when the men, elves, dwarfs, orcs and various sundry beasties go head to head, it really earns its corn. Pretty much the final hour is a massive ruck that impresses with its sheer scale at least, though some of the armies look a little too mathematically precise in the way they're computer generated. Things get much more involving when it splinters off into individual fights, some of which are exciting and entertaining, some of which go on forever.

In the end, if it works at all, it’s because of the world we’re in, it’s because of what Tolkien has created and it’s because Lord of the Rings exists and we know there’s so much more to see here.

No doubt Jackson cares about the product he’s delivering with this prequel trilogy, but ultimately it will probably be looked upon by audiences as an obligation rather than a necessity.