Night at the Museum

Ben Stiller and Robin Williams in Night at the Museum

 

 

One of Disney’s old standbys is the perky live-action comedy, of the sort they used to put out on the 1960s, invariably starring Dean Jones and a gaggle of pesky kids, plus a cute animal or two. These movies were cute and zippy and had a gee-whizz wholesomeness that was easy to mock but hard to hate. Night at the Museum drills right into that vein, and even gives a small part to Dick Van Dyke, king of Disney’s live-action magnum opus, Mary Poppins. But he’s not the star. Instead there’s an appropriately bumbling Ben Stiller fitting right into the Van Dyke mould, as the hapless, hopeless dad who takes a job at a Museum of Natural History, only to discover that at night the exhibits come to life, thanks to a magical ancient Egyptian tablet, or something. The support cast is strong: Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs as what must be the oldest security guards on the planet – they’re retiring, we’re told, but that still doesn’t quite explain how gents in their 80s are holding down jobs where they might be expected to get physical. Whatever. There’s also a bickering Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan as a diminutive cowboy and a miniature Roman centurion, Robin Williams as a statue of Teddy Roosevelt back to boombastic life, and Ricky Gervais who, aware of the John Cleese rule, it seems (acclaimed British comics often killing US films stone dead), plays his tiny role as the dorkish museum boss as someone who can’t speak.

You won’t like this if you’re hoping for sophisticated comedy, but it’s a fun piece of lightheardedness, done well, with the CG creations – a dinosaur running amok being a high point – never too threatening or convincing. I’m going to make obvious what a lot of critics seem to have missed about this movie – it’s for kids. Sure, a couple of jokes are in there for beleaguered parents in for the long haul, but it isn’t for grown-ups. Not even vaguely. The kids might not know who Teddy Roosevelt is, and they might wonder why the film seems so insistent on the importance of reading, but apart from that and the obviously downplayed icky love stuff with Carla Gugino, it’s clearly old school Disney that’s the target, and director Shawn Levy and team hit it. You wouldn’t want another one, though, would you?

 

Night at the Museum – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Midnight in Paris

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

25 October

 

 

Birth of Picasso, 1881

On this day in 1881, the Spanish artist Pablo Ruiz y Picasso was born. Prodigiously talented, Picasso was painting at a high level as a child, and continued experimenting with different media and styles – the rose period, the blue period, the African period, cubism, surrealism, and neo-expressionism and so on – right up until his death in 1973. Media included paint, sculpture, collage, cardboard, string, pencil, pen, photograph, torch (on film), chalk, oil, whatever was going. He’d draw on napkins to pay bills, draw on walls, any time, place or where. A key figure of hate for anyone who didn’t want to acknowledge that the functions of fine art, painting (call it what you will) had been redefined by the arrival of photography, cinema and mass literacy, Picasso was said by his detractors to produce work comparable to a migraine. Typical of the traditionalist view was the attitude of the British artist AJ Munnings who, in a speech to the Royal Academy, denounced Picasso (and Matisse) as “foolish daubers”. Though, regardless of whether you wonder why the cubist pictures have noses where eyes should be and so on, it is hard to disregard Picasso’s basic facility with a line – his simple drawings are still astonishing, and beautiful, concepts which many painters of the 20th century found to be incompatible.

 

 

Midnight in Paris (2011, dir: Woody Allen)

Woody Allen has a habit of coming back with a blockbuster just when he’s being written off as finished. He’s been doing it at least since Hannah and Her Sisters, in 1986. Midnight in Paris was his huge 2011 hit, a film which opens, vaguely along the lines of Manhattan, with a series of loving shots of Paris in all its picture-postcard glory, while Sidney Bechet’s clarinet swoons over the soundtrack. We then cut to the sort of fantasy you can imagine someone of Allen’s vintage having – to be transported back to the Paris of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. But being a man of a cynical, comedic bent, Allen puts a twist on it, having his stand-in (Owen Wilson in this case) – a current-day screenwriter in Paris magically transported back to the 1920s each night – finding out that the lives of these heroes weren’t quite as they are in the books. Allen pulls the Marshall McLuhan joke a few times, in other words. Which, if you remember, is the scene in Annie Hall where Allen is arguing with a schmuck in a cinema queue about something Marshall McLuhan said and drags the real McLuhan in to back him up. In Midnight in Paris, Wilson gains first hand knowledge from his nights out with Cole Porter, Hemingway etc which he then uses as a weapon in today’s Paris against the artistic know-all and rival played (brilliantly) by Michael Sheen. Midnight in Paris is one of Allen’s “funny films” in other words. And it has something to say about rose-tinted nostalgia, as Wilson and Marion Cotillard (as a woman he meets in the 1920s) go back even further in time to fin de siècle Paris, where Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Degas are all bitching about the current generation’s lack of imagination. Plus ça change and so on.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Very funny
  • Beautiful, charming and romantic
  • The acting talent – Alison Pill alongside Tom Hiddleston, Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, Léa Seydoux
  • The name-dropping – TS Eliot, Dali, Man Ray, Matisse, Buñuel, Alice B Toklas

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Midnight in Paris – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Cars

Lightning McQueen in Cars

 

 

Have the wheels come off at Pixar? Mawkishness now seems to have replaced energy and invention at the studio that… no hang on, this is the studio that once gave us Toy Story. Let’s not get carried away. But if Pixar have been known for anything it’s their ability to run sentiment and energy on a twin track, the result being a film with heart and drive. The plot of Cars suggests they’ve forgotten how to do this – we’re on the case of a self-centred hotshot racing car (voice: Owen Wilson) who loses his way and gets stuck in Radiator Springs, a small town where the good locals (all of whom are cars) teach him to love others and himself. Then, spiritually refreshed, he goes off and becomes a champ. Because that’s how champs are made, right?

I can’t believe that Pixar set out to make a film with something missing, but bizarrely that’s the theme of Cars too – our champ has lost his soul, he winds up in a town that’s lost its reason for existence (since it was bypassed by Route 66), where he finds a whole bunch of vintage vehicles (old tow truck, old VW Beetle, old Jeep and so on) who are all missing their youth.

Let’s not be too gloomy. The animation in Cars is quite amazing, the racing scenes show how far Pixar have come since they started making little films purely to demo software and there’s a glorious use of colour – reds in particular seem to bounce off the screen. Kids probably won’t care that it’s Paul Newman voicing veteran race car Doc Hudson, and they probably won’t be looking out for John Ratzenberger’s bits (he’s been in all the Pixars to date, I believe) or the tiny cameos by the voices of Michael Schumacher and Mario Andretti. But these little nuggets might keep their parents from checking their watch too often in a film that has the looks, the technique but seems to prefer preaching to storytelling.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Cars – at Amazon