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NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB

Producer: Shawn Levy, Chris Columbus and Mark Radcliffe 
Director: Shawn Levy 
Writer: David Guion and Michael Handelman 
Stars: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Dan Stevens, Rebel Wilson, Skyler Gisondo, Rami Malek, Patrick Gallagher, Mizuo Peck, Andrea Martin and Ben Kingsley
Studio: 20th Century Fox 

D

Near the start of “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” the third (and presumably final) film in the series that began in 2006, a character played by Matt Frewer in a 1930s prologue—an archaeologist whose team is looting an Egyptian tomb—says that he’s afraid they’re doing something terrible. It’s a remark that turns out to be prophetic in more ways than one: the movie ends the trilogy with a dull thud.

The premise in the script by David Guion and Michael Handelman is that the magical tablet that brings the exhibits in New York’s American Museum of Natural History to life every night is conking out, ruining a black-tie fund-raising event in the process. In order to revive the artifact, Prince Akmenrah (Rami Malek) tells Security Guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), they will have to travel to the British Museum to consult with his father Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley). So off they go—accompanied by Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck), Attila (Patrick Gallagher), the pint-sized cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and Roman general Octavius (Steve Coogan), Crystal the Monkey, Larry’s teen son Nicky (Skyler Gisondo) and (in the screenplay’s worst invention) a Neanderthal called Laa, also played by Stiller. They learn the method of restoring the tablet’s power, but complications arise from the intervention of museum guard Mindy (Rebel Wilson) and a reanimated statue of Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens).

What’s shocking about the picture is how flaccid and mirthless it is. There’s one moment of visual wit—when Larry, Teddy and Lancelot do battle inside Escher’s lithograph “Relativity”—but otherwise the extensive CGI action is remarkably tedious. Stiller is even more colorless and phlegmatic than in previous installments as Larry, and the supposedly hilarious Laa is a grunting bore. It certainly doesn’t help that the writers insert a lumbering subplot about Larry’s strenuous efforts to persuade Nicky to go to college rather than take a year off to play DJ in Ibiza. Every time they indulge in their desultory father-and-son conversation, what little energy the movie possesses drains away.

Wilson and Coogan try to juice things up, but the material they’re stuck with—including a trip through a ventilation shaft to a model of Pompeii, complete with volcano—leave them pretty much stranded. The same can be said of Wilson, whose scenes come across like desperately unfunny improvisation. And while it may bring a lump to the throat to see Williams again (along with the late Mickey Rooney, who appears in one sequence with Dick Van Dyke and Bill Cobbs), they too are badly used, along with Ricky Gervais, as the AMNH director, and Andrea Martin, who has a throwaway part as a museum secretary. Among the newcomers Kingsley is somnolent, but Stevens brings a lot of energy to a poorly-conceived role. His biggest moment—when Lancelot stumbles into a West End revival of Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot” with Hugh Jackman playing Arthur—might have been brilliant, but the writers and director Shawn Levy make nothing of it, and all the actor’s intensity can’t make up for the utter lack of inspiration.

“Tomb” strives for a sentimental close, with Larry saying a final farewell to his old museum friends, who are going back into permanent hibernation, before leaving the place himself. But the prolonged final scene with Williams comes close to seeming exploitative. The visual effects, supervised by Erik Nash, are certainly busy enough, and Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography lends an appropriately cartoonish look to the proceedings, but even in that respect the movie is undistinguished.

There’s another prophetic line in the Egyptian prologue that opens “Secret of the Tomb”—a local warns the archaeologists that “The end is coming.” It’s a sentiment that a viewer can hold onto, with fingers crossed, as the picture lumbers toward its (and, one hopes, the whole franchise’s) close.

ANNIE

Producer: James Lassiter, Will Gluck, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Caleeb Pinkett, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, Laurence “Jay” Brown and Tyran Smith
Director: Will Gluck
Writer: Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhane Wallis, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Cameron Diaz, David Zayas, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Stephanie Kurtzuba
Studio: Sony Pictures Entertainment

D

When Sidney Lumet adapted the 1975 Broadway hit “The Wiz” for the screen in 1978, the contemporary Harlem update of “The Wizard of Oz,” with Diana Ross ludicrously cast as Dorothy, seemed simply misguided. By contrast Will Gluck’s updating of the 1977 smash “Annie,” which brings the tale of the little orphan girl into the present, comes across as positively perverse. The musical was never anything more than an family-friendly exercise in nostalgia, in which the sloppily sentimental Depression-era plot overcame a weak book and, except for “Tomorrow” (the seventies’ answer to today’s equally ubiquitous “Let It Go”), mediocre score. Pulling it into the twenty-first century drains it of any charm it once had. Even the problematic John Huston 1982 film and Rob Marshall’s 1999 telefilm were better than this hapless exercise.

The movie shows its dismissive attitude toward its source from the very first scene, in a classroom scene where a “traditional” red-haired Annie gets shunted offstage to make way for the new one, a Afro-haired spitfire played by Quvenzhane Wallis, who proceeds to lead her classmates in a hip-hoppy take on the New Deal. So much for the FDR component of the play.

The new Annie, you see, isn’t the resident of an orphanage, but one of a group of girls housed in a foster home run by nasty Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), an alcoholic broad who takes in the kids only for the money the state pays her. And Annie’s determined to find her real parents, hanging out every Friday night in front of Domani, the restaurant where they abandoned her years before, promising to return someday. As for Daddy Warbucks, he’s transformed into Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a cell-phone magnate who’s built an empire on a promise of no dropped calls and is now, for some reason, running for mayor, despite the fact that he’s a germaphobe who really doesn’t like people—not even his devoted aide Grace (Rose Byrne) or his sleazy campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale).

Annie and Stacks come together when she’s distracted crossing a street and the billionaire pulls her out of the way of a van. That might have been that, but a passerby captures the act on his cell-phone, and the shot goes viral, upping Stacks’ poll numbers. That convinces Guy to build on the public’s reaction by using Annie as a campaign pawn, which leads to Stacks reluctantly agreeing to let her move into his sleek penthouse pad for the duration. Naturally, a bond slowly builds between them that presages adoption, although a plot by Guy and Hannigan to recruit a couple to claim her as their own brings on a silly chase finale—driven by social media, no less.

Throughout this “Annie,” credited to Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna (with a nod to Thomas Meehan’s Broadway book), what’s most notable is a crassly materialistic outlook, emphasizing Stacks’ palatial accommodations, all the high-tech goodies his wealth can buy, and the comp tickets to movie premieres and parties his status brings (clips from a “Twilight”-style teen romance featuring cameos by Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher fall flat). Of course we’re supposed to understand that what’s really important in the end is the love that eventually brings Annie, Will and Grace together as a family-to-be, but since all three are purely synthetic figures, their relationship carries no emotional resonance, especially since the performances are so drab. Byrne is the worst of the three, bringing nothing to her role but a certain primness, but young Wallis delivers a one-note turn that exudes spunk but not much else (and in this case one might be tempted to second Lou Grant’s contempt for spunk). Foxx fares best, even though his character is basically a caricature, not only because he’s a naturally ingratiating presence but mostly because he can actually sing and dance.

That’s more than can be said of virtually everybody else in the cast. Wallis’ thin voice sounds electronically manipulated, and Byrne contributes little in that department. And while Cannavale seems to have some talent in that department, he’s forced to ham it up so terribly as the stock villain that one can barely stand to watch him. Even at that he’s preferable to Diaz, who’s gruesomely miscast as Hannigan and responds by chewing the scenery and screeching her way through her “Little Girls” number. (Why the neighborhood shop owner played by likable David Zayas should be besotted with her is beyond understanding.)

That song, along with “Tomorrow,” “It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here, “Easy Street,” “I Don’t Need Anything But You” and “Maybe,” are among those retained from the original Broadway show, and taken as a whole—especially as clumsily performed as here, in mostly atrocious backup arrangements that feature lots of apparently synthesized “clapping” sounds to accompany droning bass figurations—they confirm that this was not one of Charles Strouse’s more inspired scores (and that the lyrics by Moose Charnin remain incredibly banal). Strouse’s name, incidentally, is among those written on the blackboard amidst those of American presidents in the initial classroom scene—a dubious honor indeed.

While the singing is poor, however, the dancing is worse. The supporting kid contingent in Hannigan’s home seem to have some terpsichorean talent, and Foxx shows a few moves, but otherwise the musical numbers suffer from choreography by Zach Woodlee that’s generically athletic but nothing more, and are shot and stitched together (by cinematographer Michael Grady and editor Tia Nolan) in a hyperkinetic style that seems designed to camouflage the fact that the performers are just jumping around aimlessly. Given those clattering accompaniments, the effect is noisy but dull.

It’s a pity that families who will be searching for some Christmas entertainment will find that what they’d hoped might be a gift is instead a cinematic lump of coal. But the sad fact is that a not-very-good Broadway musical has now spawned three not-very-good movies, with this third attempt the worst of the lot.