A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
A violent and gritty film A Man Apart follows DEA agents Sean Vetter (Vin Diesel) and Demetrius Hicks (Larenz Tate) as they try to stop the drug pipeline along the US/Mexico border. After seven years of surveillance they take down Baja California cartel kingpin Memo Lucero (Geno Silva) whose ominous last words to Vetter are "You have no idea what kind of mistake you are making." Vetter doesn't take the threat to heart--until a hail of bullets kills his wife Stacy (Jacqueline Obradors) as she sleeps. Vetter discovers the man responsible for Stacy's death is Diablo who has stepped in to claim the Baja cartel. A grief-stricken Vetter enlists Hicks's help to avenge his wife's murder but his personal involvement in the case clouds his judgement--and at this point we know for certain that two things will happen. First Vetter will be pulled off the case and second he will go after his wife's killer without the department's authorization. When this ultimately happens Vetter turns to the jailed Memo for help tracking down Diablo. But just when you think you have the story all figured out it comes back at you with a twist.
A Man Apart gives Diesel a chance to play a character with more depth than um Zander Cage in XXX or Dominic Torreto in The Fast and the Furious. He definitely sinks his teeth into the role--a little too much. As Vetter Diesel shares some "tender" moments with his on-screen wife but the chemistry between the two is lukewarm and their oh-so-perfect marriage is too fairytale-like to buy. They drink red wine and dance on the beach at sunset (really). And as a widower Diesel overdoes the dazed and detached thing. In one scene Vetter beats a man to a pulp then slumps down against his car and stares vacantly into the distance a victim of his own misbehavior. But Diesel's performance lacks sincerity. Vetter's DEA partner Hicks is played by Tate (Biker Boyz) who carves out a more grounded and representational character. Tate shapes Hicks into a multifaceted character that is tough streetwise and sympathetic--minus the showboating. Worth an honorable mention is Timothy Olyphant (Dreamcatcher) in the role of Hollywood Jack an obnoxious drug supplier who runs a tanning salon. This two-faced hoodlum steals some of the film's best moments.
If there is one thing that director F. Gary Gray has mastered it is the art of making cheesy material watchable. Like Gray's last two films The Negotiator and Set It Off A Man Apart is a gritty urban drama that is entertaining if you allow yourself to be absorbed in the director's dynamic visual style. There is never a dull moment here and like a trailer it cuts from one action-packed scene to another. But if you stop to analyze what's going on or being said corny lines are likely to pop out and cause you to laugh out loud when you're not supposed to. Imagine a line such as "You alone are trying to bring down a monster. As a cop that's impossible; you must become a monster" reverberating in your head. It's enough to distract you from the film's hair-raising violence. Not all of the dialogue is laughable however and there is one scene in particular that is funny and bitingly genuine where Vetter and Hicks pump a dealer named Overdose for information. It's reminiscent of the wisecracking dialogue in Gray's 1995 directorial debut Friday.