NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is to its precursor what Ghostbusters II is to Ghostbusters: the less-novel offering, sure, but a follow-up of surprising wit and great throwaway touches, and one that, in many ways, improves on source material that was pretty terrific to begin with. Despite its titular locale, no one is going to mistake director Shawn Levy's adventure comedy for a work of art, yet when this follow-up is really working - which is surprisingly often - it provides a giddy, giggly rush, and it's filled with comic bits that you could probably watch three or four times in succession and laugh at every single time. The movie is scrappy, silly, and a load of fun.
There are times, in truth, when the film is a load of something else. After watching beleaguered pop Ben Stiller learn to be a better dad in the 2006 original - which, like its sequel, finds museum exhibits magically bursting to life through the aid of a supernatural thingamajiggy - it feels repetitive, to say nothing of maudlin, to watch him now learning to be a better friend, and the final reels digress into one of those over-extended, hyper-active action climaxes that makes the young uns giggle while their parents stare at the exit signs. Several of the movie's talented comedians, particularly the great Christopher Guest, are given almost nothing amusing to do. And while Stiller's sardonic, nattering, vaguely hostile readings are still a refreshing rejoinder to the family-oriented blandness, his deliveries and expressions here are so deadpan that nothing much seems to be at stake. We know the plot is drivel, too, Ben, but couldn't you at least have tried to appear engaged?
Yet for all of its failings, there's so much here that's ticklishly inventive that you leave feeling recharged and alert - and, surprisingly, not dreading Night at the Museum 3. A sequence that animates Smithsonian paintings provides some of the blissful enjoyment of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo - Levy frames the gags so you catch the best ones from the corner of your eye - and while Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, and the splendidly dyspeptic Ricky Gervais all return, it's the series newcomers who offer the biggest laughs: Hank Azaria is riotous as a cranky Egyptian ruler with a speech impediment (stretching the Ghostbusters II analogy further, he's this film's Peter MacNicol), Jonah Hill delivers a brief, brilliant turn as an prickly security guard, and Amy Adams, with Katharine Hepburn-inspired patrician cadences, is a divinely sensible, butt-kicking Amelia Earhart. All this, plus the Jonas Brothers as a trio of flying, crooning marble cherubs whom Stiller chastises for being "a little pitchy." They are. They're also endearing and frequently funny as all-get-out. Just like Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian itself.
For most of its length, the grim, tedious, and abjectly humorless (and colon-less) Terminator Salvation clunks along with professional skill and not an ounce of personality. Gleaming hulks of metal attack everything in sight, laborious backstory is revealed, Christian Bale yells and does his Batman growl, and it's all just a little less interesting than any five minutes of James Cameron's T1 or 2; although the effects are kind of fun - I really liked the whizzing motorcycles that sprung from a gargantuan robot's kneecaps - director McG's franchise time-waster is basically a high-tech, sci-fi Fast & Furious without the liveliness of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker (if you can imagine). Yet 20 or so minutes before its end, Salvation delivers an appearance by a stunningly accurate doppelgänger that's so jaw-dropping in its comedic perfection that it almost made sitting through the first 90 minutes of this rote, soulless endeavor worthwhile. He said he'd be back, but what the hell took him so long?
The latest of the Wayans brothers' crude, shapeless, we've-seen-more-movies-than-you've-seen parodies, Dance Flick features so many bizarrely dated references (Halle Berry as Catwoman? Black Snake Moan? Twiggy?!?) and so many distasteful, juvenile gags that you'll probably be embarrassed to hear yourself laughing as hard as you are. Directed by Damien Dante Wayans, and scripted by the director and no less than four of his relatives, the movie doesn't hold together, and scenes that should've been classics, including an outdoor riff on Fame's title song, are, instead, only moderately amusing. But beginning with the opening scene, in which a hip-hop dance-off results in hoofers spinning into orbit and burrowing through the floor, this aimless yet offhandedly subversive satire delivers big laughs mixed with the expected groans - I'd say it's about a one-to-five ratio - and the cast is chock-full of inventive comics: Shoshana Bush (doing a spot-on Julia Stiles), Damon Wayans Jr., Essence Atkins, Amy Sedaris, Ross Thomas (channeling Channing Tatum), and others entertain even when their material doesn't. Overall, I had a fine time, and now that the Wayans have produced White Chicks and Dance Flick, I'm awaiting the inevitable hybrid: Chick Flick. Anyone else want to see Matthew McConaughey get the spoofy trashing he so richly deserves?