Reviews

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

In Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, the real heroes of history are women, native peoples, and "others" of all sorts.


Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Director: Shawn Levy
Cast: Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Mizuo Peck, Ricky Gervais, Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, Robin Williams
Rated: PG
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-05-22 (General release)
UK date: 2009-05-20 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Midway through Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) and his band of museum pieces come to life are transported to the Federal Archives at the Smithsonian. Here at the "world's largest museum," they meet new friends, including one of Jeff Koons' "Balloon Dog" statues. Frolicking through the halls of the National Museum of Art, the "Balloon Dog" is as light as air in all its shiny, mirrored, red fabulousness, and accompanied by a sproing-sproingy sound effect at each bound.

The CGIed romp is totally charming -- and just as totally fleeting. Battle of the Smithsonian is a kids' flick, after all, so rapid pacing, broad sight gags, and physical humor are the rule of order. To wonder whether it's a "good" film in any high falutin' cinematic terms is to miss the point of the exercise. Like its predecessor, the sequel aims to invigorate some mild curiosity in its target audience, and presents itself as a sort of champion of the powers of the imagination.

This latter project is embedded directly into the plot of Battle of the Smithsonian. The reason that the collection has been shipped off to DC is that New York's Museum of Natural History is under renovation, including the installation of computerized, "interactive" features (like a holographic update of Teddy Roosevelt ([Robin Williams]). Thus the teeny-tiny cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and his tiny little boyfriend, I mean best friend, Octavius (Steve Coogan), and all their historical pals are interred in pine boxes to make way for "innovation." The message is clear: innovation is no substitute for imagination, and it's up to Larry to save the day as well as young viewers' minds.

It's a tall order, especially the part about getting kids to think, rather than just consume. And yet Battle of the Smithsonian might pull it off. Last summer, my niece and nephew visited me in Washington, DC. They were totally jazzed about visiting Mount Vernon. Why? Because the site was featured prominently in the National Treasure sequel. Off to George Washington's manse we went, and while they were most excited by the special National Treasure tie-in walking tour of the grounds, the kids learned a lot more about colonial life in America than they had anticipated, and even enjoyed it.

And so I can believe Night at the Museum's frequently repeated selling point, that the first film and now this one encourages kids to actually go to a museum, even to believe art is a vital part of life and not just some boring old thing that hangs on a wall. It's possible too that some viewers of Battle of the Smithsonian will want to learn more about Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) or the Tuskegee Airmen (Keith Powell, Craig Robinson). The film itself appears to take this possibility seriously, celebrating the accomplishments of persons largely marginalized or tokenized in regular U.S. history.

It also sets up a series of historical villains, like Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) and Al Capone (John Bernthal), typically deemed individual deviants, but also symptoms of the broader cultural embrace of Great Men, patriarchal figures who just don't know when to stop. Their counterpart here is General George Armstrong Custer (Bill Hader), introduced as the great-white-daddy substitute for the first film's Teddy Roosevelt. His bravado and hubris have to be taken down a notch before he can join our band of heroes.

Those heroes are led by unconventional figures in U.S. national history. Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck) returns from the first film, now largely responsible for the re-education of General Custer, pointing out the obvious holes and flawed logic in his battle plans. Amelia Earhart is a no-nonsense, take-charge kind of woman whose cool head and clear thinking direct Larry's attempts to rescue his friends.

At one point, Amelia and Larry run in to a group of Tuskegee Airmen in the Air and Space Museum, one of whom immediately recognizes the aviatrix and acknowledges her influence and accomplishments. Tuskegee Airman #1 (strikingly, these historical figures remain unidentified) thanks Earhart for her determination, telling her, "People didn't think we could fly, either." It's a poignant moment, as surprising for its alternative to dominant narratives of the drive of history by great (white) men, as it is for connecting the historical struggles of a wide range of marginalized populations. In Battle of the Smithsonian, the real heroes of history are women, native peoples, and "others" of all sorts. For all that might be predictable about this film, that is an uncommon lesson.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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