Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Genre: Comedy

Director: Shawn Levy

Screenplay: David Guion, Michael Handelman, story by Mark Friedman, David Guion, Michaelk Handelman, based on characters created by Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant

Cast: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Dan Stevens, Rebel Wilson, Skyler Gisondo, Rami Malek, Patrick Gallagher, Mizuo Peck, Andrea Martin, Ben Kingsley, Rachel Harris, Matt Frewer, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Anjali Jay, Crystal the Monkey.

Running Length: 97 minutes

Synopsis: With the help of favourite and new characters, security guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) travels to London to unlock the true secret that brings the museum to life. It’s a thrilling race against time to restore the tablet’s power, before it’s gone forever.

Review: There was really no reason for Night at the Museum to get a sequel, much less two, and yet here we are, finally ending what is now a trilogy of Night at the Museum movies with Secret of the Tomb. While the franchise has never broken any new ground, it has always been entertaining and has performed respectably well at the box office. This is unsurprising since the movies are family friendly, with a very recognizable roster of stars fronting them. This last installment is particularly poignant (though unintentionally so), however, being one of the last (if not the last) big screen outings for two actors that have passed on, namely Mickey Rooney and Robin Williams.

Secret of the Tomb suffers a bit from been-there, done-that, as it brings nothing new at all, despite a shift of location to London. It does manage to introduce even more characters, the most memorable of all being Rebel Wilson’s quite funny turn as the night guard in the British Museum, and also Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey) who hams it up as a rather clueless Sir Lancelot. While not particularly fresh, the film still entertains, particularly a brilliant sequence in London which sees an excellent cameo (try not to spoiler yourself as this is a really fun one) from one of the most famous Hollywood stars around. There was probably no way that Robin Williams would have known this was one of his last performances, but it’s a grand, elegiac one, which acts as a fitting sendoff for the actor.

Visual effects in Secret of the Tomb are well done, seamlessly matching live action to CG animation. Levy does try to mix things up a little, most evidently so in a visually inventive sequence in an MC Escher painting. However, it seems that Levy and team are also aware that they have milked the franchise dry, and whilst not a definitive conclusion to the franchise, the way Secret of the Tomb concludes suggests that there will no longer be any further additions to the canon. Which honestly is a good thing, since I cannot imagine there being enough of a story left for yet another sequel.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel “The Hobbit” by J. R. R. Tolkien

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Stephen Fry, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice)

Running Length: 144 minutes

Synopsis: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies brings to an epic conclusion the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the Company of Dwarves. The Dwarves of Erebor have reclaimed the vast wealth of their homeland, but now must face the consequences of having unleashed the terrifying Dragon, Smaug, upon the defenseless men, women and children of Lake-town.

As he succumbs to dragon-sickness, the King Under the Mountain, Thorin Oakenshield, sacrifices friendship and honor in his search for the legendary Arkenstone. Unable to help Thorin see reason, Bilbo is driven to make a desperate and dangerous choice, not knowing that even greater perils lie ahead. An ancient enemy has returned to Middle-earth. Sauron, the Dark Lord, has sent forth legions of Orcs in a stealth attack upon the Lonely Mountain. As darkness converges on their escalating conflict, the races of Dwarves, Elves and Men must decide—unite or be destroyed. Bilbo finds himself fighting for his life and the lives of his friends as five great armies go to war.

Review: By this third installment, it’s safe to say that The Hobbit trilogy is kind of a misnomer, since the titular character doesn’t really factor all that much into the proceedings, made most abundantly clear in this episode, The Battle of the Five Armies. This is a natural outcome of trying to stretch out what is essentially a children’s storybook into a fantasy epic, in an attempt to make The Hobbit trilogy’s breadth and scope similar to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. So much material in the three Hobbit movies aren’t even in the novel that it is moot to discuss the faithfulness of the movie to the source, and not all additions work in the movies’ favour.

That said, The Battle of the Five Armies is easily the best film in the trilogy, far trumping the soporific An Unexpected Journey and an improvement upon the sporadically interesting The Desolation of Smaug. The film opens with Smaug raining fiery destruction on Lake-town, and the CG effects, especially Smaug himself, remain a sight to behold. The action never really lets up from there, culminating in an epic battle sequence lasting more than an hour, with the expansive battle coming close to the best scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bookended by these two setpieces, The Battle of the Five Armies feels closest to being a complete entity of its own, unlike the two films that came before it, both of which ended very abruptly. There can be a case made for too much CGI as the trilogy progresses, but it’s hard to argue that the end results are very impressive and rightfully lends an epic feel to the sequences. (A side note: HFR 3D remains a little too sharp for my own preferences, but at least the 3D is not entirely redundant in the film, unlike almost every other title that decides to open in 3D.)

It’s no secret that there are plenty of embellishments in The Hobbit trilogy to pad out the thin storyline, even creating characters that were not part of the canon – most notably the female Wood Elf Tauriel. Sure, the interspecies romance between Tauriel and Kili will probably make the film more appealing to a greater number of moviegoers, but it just flat out does not work well as a plot device because it feels so ill-fitted in the Tolkien universe. The decision to include Legolas as more than just a cameo probably stems from the same desire to appeal to a specific fan base, but the action sequences involving Legolas have devolved into near-farce, especially one in which he seems to be in a different movie – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon perhaps – altogether.

The same can be said of many returning faces, and everyone (save for Gollum) makes an appearance, making it feel almost like some Middle-Earth reunion movie of sorts. However, such extraneous filler also manages to diminish the central plot and character, and much of The Battle of the Five Armies sees Bilbo Baggins being sidelined as a spectator of the proceedings. It’s a shame, because Martin Freeman is excellent in his role, but the audience simply does not get to see enough of him despite it being an almost two-and-a-half-hour movie (for those keeping count, this means the combined running length of The Hobbit trilogy is a whopping 474 minutes).

And so, thirteen years after embarking on a journey to Middle-Earth, Peter Jackson finally concludes his six-film saga with a big (enough) bang. Jackson has stated that there will be no third set of films based on The Silmarillon from him, but one can never be too sure about such things – after all it does seem that rights issues is what’s stopping potential production. When looked upon as a complete body of work or as a part of the entire Middle Earth saga, The Hobbit doesn’t do all that badly (though I still maintain that it should never had become three movies – even the originally planned two-parter was a dubious decision), and is already a qualified box office success even before The Battle of the Five Armies opened. This last movie singlehandedly raises the trilogy to above mediocrity, and whilst The Hobbit never comes close to its predecessor on any level, The Battle of the Five Armies rounds out one of the better film trilogies in recent years, paling only to Christopher Nolan’s superlative Dark Knight trilogy. That’s not to say that the films are without their flaws, but at the very least the journey there and back again has a decent payoff.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

Overall Rating for The Hobbit trilogy: * * * (out of four stars)


Exodus: Gods and Kings

Genre: Action, Drama

Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian

Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Isaac Andrews, Hiam Abbass, Indira Varma, Ewen Bremner, Golshifteh Farahani, Ghassan Massoud, Tara Fitzgerald, Maria Valverde, Andrew Barclay Tarbet

Running Length: 150 minutes

Synopsis: From acclaimed director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Prometheus) comes the epic adventure Exodus: Gods and Kings, the story of one man’s daring courage to take on the might of an empire. Using state of the art visual effects and 3D immersion, Scott brings new life to the story of the defiant leader Moses (Christian Bale) as he rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton), setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues.

Review: It’s apt to quote from Ridley Scott’s own Gladiator, since it was the movie that made the sword-and-sandals epic cool again – “Are you not entertained?” Because this is one of the main problems I have with Exodus – although it is sufficiently stirring sporadically, and shows a really masterful use of CGI, the film is simply not that entertaining, bringing nothing new to the tale of the Ten Commandments, and actually ends up being less interesting than Cecil B. DeMille’s still-definitive 1956 version.

Perhaps it’s because Ridley Scott didn’t seem to set out to make a religious epic, and much like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah earlier in the year, attempts to make certain scenes more secular and logical, that the film takes a big hit. The parting of the Red Sea certainly feels more realistic, but does not inspire any awe. The plagues visited upon Egypt are brilliant CGI setpieces, but at the same time come across as being perfunctory, as though Scott is checking off an invisible list of the ten plagues, just making sure that they all end up in the film. The burning bush and the Ten Commandments seem more like afterthoughts, and are not given the dramatic heft that they should have been. The personification of God is also a questionable decision – I am not sure if assigning an actor to play God (literally) is more effective than a loud booming voice, as clichéd as the latter sounds.

Although Scott and his team of 4 writers correctly presume that a good majority of the audience would be at least somewhat familiar with the story of Moses, broad narrative gaps appear in the film, which almost makes the film feel disjointed. And yet, the film devotes so much time to the setup that when thing finally get going in the last hour, the pacing suddenly speeds up and the entire proceedings start feeling rushed. To add insult to injury, after a rather stirring finale act of crossing the Red Sea, Scott decided to keep the narrative running just a bit too long, leading to a drawn out and wholly anticlimactic denouement.

Putting aside the fact that the film is populated by white actors instead of ethnic actors more appropriate to the story’s locations, even the A-list names in the cast feel a bit out of place. The normally supremely dependable Christian Bale feels a little stilted in his portrayal as Moses, and Joel Edgerton basically depends on his bronzer and guyliner to carry his performance as Ramses. These are not bad performances by any measure, but again, so much drama is dialed back that it just comes across as being too muted for an epic film like this one. Other notable actors like Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro and Aaron Paul barely register, completely wasted in parts where they have too little to do.

Thankfully, the few action setpieces are quite rousing, if never reaching the level of Scott’s best films. Also, for a film that’s steeped in CG by necessity, Exodus actually comes across as being visually stunning without being too clearly artificial (though there’s absolutely no necessity to catch the film in 3D). In this day and age where a straight-up biblical epic may no longer be palatable to the general audience, both experiments in 2014 have been only moderately successful. There is really no reason to remake The Ten Commandments, and the results only serve to reinforce this. Here’s hoping that Scott’s next cinematic outing (The Martian, coming in end 2015) would prove to be a more compelling film.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)



Genre: Drama

Director: Dan Gilroy

Writer: Dan Gilroy

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton

Running Length: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Nightcrawler is a thriller set in the nocturnal underbelly of contemporary Los Angeles. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a driven young man desperate for work who discovers the high-speed world of L.A. crime journalism. Finding a group of freelance camera crews who film crashes, fires, murder and other mayhem, Lou muscles into the cut-throat, dangerous realm of nightcrawling – where each police siren wail equals a possible windfall and victims are converted into dollars and cents. Aided by Rene Russo as Nina, a veteran of the blood-sport that is local TV news, Lou blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story.

Review: Jake Gyllenhaal has had an excellent body of work so far, with wide-ranging roles that manage to impress time and again (Enemy, Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, Prisoners, and many more). However, his performance in Nightcrawler is undoubtedly his best yet, and that says a lot about how good it is – highly deserving of a great run at the awards season next year, and on its own is reason enough to give Nightcrawler a go. While Nightcrawler is not without some flaws, it has a mesmerising central performance around a smart, always engaging film, making it impossible to look away for the entire 2-hour running time. This is the poster child for movies that don’t accord audiences any good moments for a pee break.

The most immediate comparison that one can make to Gyllenhaal’s performance is that of Robert De Niro’s in Taxi Driver – Lou Bloom is as much of an anti-hero as Travis Bickle was, although Bloom definitely has less of a moral compass than Bickle. And it’s an equally transformative, unforgettable performance – Gyllenhaal totally disappears into the role, fully embodifying Bloom not just in his physicality (he lost over 20 pounds of weight for the role) but in every aspect. It’s clear that in Nightcrawler, Bloom is the antagonist, and his soulless eyes, forced smile and ruthless, sociopathic focus on the end game is unyieldingly creepy yet fascinating to observe. This is easily one of the best performances of the year, on par with the mind searing turn by Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl.

While Gyllenhaal carries the film on his performance alone, the supporting cast is also quite capable – Rene Russo (Dan Gilroy’s wife, by the way) is the only female presence in the film and leaves a strong impression as the network executive that’s almost willing to do anything for ratings. Bill Paxton plays a small but important role in the film, and despite limited screen time gives a memorable performance as well. Riz Ahmed’s Rick acts as the human foil for Lou, but at times does feel more like a convenient plot device rather than a convincingly written character.

Dan Gilroy pulls double duty as director (his debut) and screenwriter, and manages to excel at both. With such solid performers on board, he wisely chooses a straightforward, unflashy directorial style, but is aided by Robert Elswit hitting it out of the park with excellent cinematography – nighttime Los Angeles has not looked so spectacular since the equally lush take in 2011’s Drive. The scripting is impeccable, and although I question the veracity of how network news footage is acquired (and the sensationalism of news is a very tired, old trope), Gilroy is masterful in ramping up the suspense all the way to the explosive, macabre, yet strangely satisfying denouement.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)