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.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Chocolate and peanut butter, chips and salsa, tacos and pizza rolls; sometimes two great things are made exponentially greater upon unification. During the course of this column I have featured both the incredible documentary Best Worst Movie and the incalculably awesome reference book Destroy All Movies. Today it was announced that Best Worst Movie director Michael Stephenson and Destroy All Movies writers Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly would be teaming up for the upcoming film Destroy. Destroy is a horror comedy about an intrepid vampire hunter gallivanting around Bavaria and ridding the world of the undead. Trouble is, there are no such things as vampires so our “hero” is merely stabbing innocent old men to death. On top of being immeasurably excited about the project, I had the chance to sit down with Zack and Michael to get the lowdown on this unholy collaboration.
Hollywood: What was the genesis of the project? Zack, I know you were featured prominently in Best Worst Movie, but how did this particular idea come about?
Zack: Well, actually, my writing partner Bryan Connolly and I had the idea a long, long time ago. I’ve always thought vampire hunters were more fascinating than vampires themselves because vampires are more theatrical and sissy-like, for the most part, but the vampire hunter is more of a blue-collar, working man, and so I’ve always been more entertained by that character. So it’s kind of like a whole ode to the vampire hunter but then we just put it away for a long time. And then, many years later, I was on an adventure with Michael Stevenson, dot dot dot…
Michael: You know, it’s funny because Zack’s in BWM; he hooked up the first real 35mm screening of Troll 2 years ago, I had heard that the Drafthouse was doing it and I called Zack. The enthusiasm he showed right off the bat, I thought, “I like this guy!” And, that evolved. We ended up in Europe, shooting BWM and I had my shooters and I had about an eight-person crew. I had a feeling that I wanted to bring Zack along. I thought he’d be really helpful on this trip though I couldn’t really define how, or to what extent. And the trip was a disaster. It was such a nightmare. We were actually driving right after the big convention…we were driving through Austria. I’ll never forget because there were castles, huge houses, mansions on the hillsides, and Zack started telling me about one of the scripts he’d been working on with Bryan. It’s basically this movie about this wimpy vampire hunter killing these innocent old men. And I just remember smiling and laughing and thinking, “Wow! That’s hilarious!” A month after that and I finally got around to reading the script and I just fell in love with it.
Hollywood: So, were you nervous at all? I mean BWM was your first film. Were you nervous about taking on something more narrative? Or were you just sold from the script and that kind of assuaged all doubt?
Michael: I think both. I mean, even now it’s like, “Oh boy! What have I done?” But this movie needs to get made. Yeah, I’m terrified and frightened, but kind of in the same breath, I’m surrounded with a really fantastic team. And I know that throughout it all, throughout any of the ups and downs, Zack’s still gonna be smiling. So I guess that’s all I need.
Hollywood: Zack, beyond the obvious differences in the final products, how was the process of writing this script different from the process of writing Destroy All Movies? Did you have similar research involving garbage bags full of rented vampire films?
Zack: No, no. We didn’t do any research for this movie whatsoever, besides the thousands of comedy and horror films we watched in our lives. But it’s a dark comedy more than it is a horror movie, by far. Sort of in the same vein as Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, which was one of our muses. It’s more of a character film. But it’s got violence in it by nature of the fact that it’s about a vampire hunter. The only real concrete research is that my co-writer, Bryan, had gone to small town Bavaria for school years ago. He said that it was the most bizarre and entertainingly goofy and awkward place. He’s kind of a funny and awkward guy anyway, and he said that being a tourist there was ridiculous. And so this movie is about a guy who’s already not really socially well adjusted. On top of that, he’s accidentally a murderer. And then he’s in this place where he’s even more poorly suited to exist. So, that was the genesis for a lot of it. And we had our book come out before we ever could have sold a screenplay in any way. But we’d been writing scripts a lot longer than we worked on the book. That’s something we started doing forever ago. We just didn’t expect to have both of these things happen back-to-back. The book came out three months ago and now this is happening and it’s been like a big, happy shock. But there’s no similarity between the creation of our script and the book, to answer your question.
Hollywood: Is that what…I don’t even remember what my question was. That was a good answer. Michael, do you think your turbulent experiences as a child actor in Troll 2 will alter how you approach working with actors? I mean, not that you were directed by bad directors, but you were kind of directed by bad directors so I’m just curious how that might affect your process.
Michael: (laughing) Right. Well, I will certainly refrain from referring to any actors as dogs as Claudio did to us. That’s probably not good for morale.
Hollywood: Maybe not.
Michael: It’s funny, because before this interview, I just realized that my first movie, Troll 2 does not have a single troll in the film, and my first narrative feature is a vampire movie that does not have a vampire in the movie. My life is just funny. It’s weird because, even with Troll 2 and a lot of the sets—I’ve been on set most of my life, working as an actor—I almost forget that that’s played into a great deal of who I am now. But what I feel films are missing these days is just emotional truthfulness, emotional honesty. That’s really what I hope to add to the table. I don’t even like thinking of directing. Even thinking of saying the word action aloud rubs me wrong because I don’t want to create this artifice. I want it to be as natural as possible.
Hollywood: I know it’s really early in the process, but have you thought about casting at all? I mean, is there anybody you’d kill to work with? And, will George Hardy have a part?
Michael: I actually failed at talking Zack into writing a role specifically for George. Maybe we can put him in. We’ll have to think about it. It would be great. But right now there’s not a role for him. Zack and I have gone back and forth over some dream talent that we’d love to have associated, but it’s still early. Within the next month or two, we’re hoping to have a couple of names finalized and attached, but right now it’s still very developmental.
Hollywood: Zack, I’m assuming there will be some pretty particularly nasty old man deaths in Destroy. As we all know, old people are humanity’s number one threat, if Alone in the Dark is any indication. As a writer, how do you make something like that funny? Because I’ve heard from people, conservatives, that maybe you’re not supposed to kill the elderly?
Zack: Well, there’s not just violence toward the elderly in this movie; there’s also a lot of bad moments for humanity in general. So, there’s kind of an equal opportunity to kill corpses, the elderly, and a couple of quasi-innocent people, so we’ve been able to spread it around. But as far as the nastiness of the killings, I think we tried to steer toward creativity more than just being gratuitous. I have every respect for graphic violence, but the movie is more geared toward the humor that might come out of the violence because it’s either unlikely or creative or just unexpected. And that’s what we’re gearing toward rather than squished eyeballs. No two people in this movie die exactly the same, and I think that’s important.
Hollywood: Both of your previous works, Best Worst Movie and Destroy All Movies, celebrate this unmitigated love of obscure cinema. Can you think of any opportunities that Destroy will offer you to bring more of that quality to the screen?
Zack: I think nobody aims for obscurity, but in obscure films, I think nobody would argue some of the most ambitious work is put into them. These are films that have the freedom, or the creators were allowed the freedom, to try new things because they weren’t operating under the studio. Stuff that we look upon fondly now completely flopped in its day because it just wasn’t accessible. And that includes even huge studio titles. It’s a Wonderful Life was a failure. People thought it was too weird, and it had the whole afterlife thing. And then with exploitation and horror from the 70’s and on, there was a whole new market to be as severe as you could and to do stuff that wouldn’t otherwise be allowed in more widely distributed movies. And with the advent of new filmmakers who pay respect to movies that weren’t formerly respected, I think everybody who’s doing good work is doing so because, as a person absorbing movies and absorbing creativity, they were open to all types of stuff and not just looking at the history of major studio, Hollywood, output. So, anything that Michael does, or that Bryan and I would write, is going to be informed by this broad appreciation of movies that weren’t necessarily nominated for Oscars. And I think that’s the only way that somebody can really get excited about doing anything creatively, is if they’ve already absorbed so much stuff that they’re full and now it’s time for them to put out more of their own. And if somebody just comes from making music videos or watching studio movies, they’re not going to have that same drive to do something fun or creative. They’re not already full of that excitement themselves. Does that make sense?
Hollywood: Absolutely. That’s a good answer to my borderline pretentious question. So, I appreciate that. Michael, did you have anything you wanted to add to that?
Michael: He basically said exactly what I was gonna say. No, I’m kidding. I’d only offer that with some of these obscure films, not being the studio films, are made with such heart and honesty and nothing but good intentions. There’s a sort of innocence to them. And I think that’s something that’s really special with this script. With Zack’s writing, it’s obvious that every page is full of him and Bryan. It’s very dark, but it’s also just overflowing with heart and with really smart comedy. It’s not comedy that’s cheap…it’s really subtle comedic timing. It’s very great.
Zack: Gosh, thanks.
Hollywood: The last question is probably the most obligatory one. Can you guys name just some of your favorite, maybe not even necessarily just vampire movies, but maybe the films that would have inspired you to make this film; classic, trashy or otherwise?
Michael: Zack introduced me to the Kaurismäki film The Man Without a Past, and I love the comedic timing in that movie. It’s got this innocence and great sense of humor. I also just saw The Apartment for the first time a couple weeks ago and I was just blown away by how well they were able to handle such dark comedy with a sense of brightness.
Zack: If I can interject: people look at The Apartment as a comedy, in hindsight, but that movie covers the tragedies brought on by infidelity. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s still a comedy. Sorry, go on.
Michael: Yeah, it’s really dark material and that way that it was handled was just so refreshing. How about you, Zack?
Zack: As far as what stuff in that same genre or even in just a vampire hunting realm would have informed it, I think vampire movies for the most part aren’t as exciting to me when they don’t focus on the humans that are affected by the vampires. It’s like a disaster movie. If you watch a movie about an earthquake or tidal wave, you don’t get to know the earthquake or tidal wave; you get to know the people that are affected by it. I always like vampire hunter movies like Captain Kronos, which is the old Hammer movie. I mean Peter Cushing is likeable too in the Hammer movies as Van Helsing. I just think this human being going up against ridiculous odds and really has no chance of surviving against this immortal, powerful force, that character is always more likeable. So we just took out the immortal, powerful force. So it’s this guy who’s just left alone. And being a vampire hunter in a world without vampires is a pretty tragic role. This guy puts everything he has into it, which is like the worst thing he could ever do, but he’s still dedicated to it. So, in that way he’s just kind of a tragic lead character, and it’s not about the horror aspects at all. What Michael said about it, comparing it to Billy Wilder’s The Apartment that would be the most flattering comparison anyone could ever make to it, if Billy Wilder directed a vampire hunter movie. Hopefully we can do something along those lines and make it totally funny and entertaining and unpretentious, but also smart and exciting. And hopefully it’ll appeal to someone who isn’t in the mood for vampires, because there aren’t any in this anyway.
Thanks guys, we’ll be on the lookout for Destroy. Feel free to read the Under the Radar features on Best Worst Movie and Destroy All Movies.
As much as I love movies, there is a danger in the assumption that films, especially fictional narratives, represent an accurate mirror to our ever-changing cultural landscape. More to the point, subcultures in particular are most at risk for celluloid misrepresentation. There is also, typically, an inverse proportion that exists between a film’s budget constraints/artistic merit to the accuracy of depiction of a fringe societal stratum. All this film school rhetoric aside, these whitewashed, off-kilter, or wholly incorrect caricatures can make for a riotously funny cinematic experience. Between 1977 and 1999, the most painfully misrepresented counterculture in film was that of the punk movement.
This leads me to the subjects of this week’s entry: a recently released film reference book entitled Destroy All Movies: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film. This book, which should be adorning your coffee tables in short order, catalogues a sea of badly drawn punkers in film as well as the few instances wherein Hollywood managed a semi-reasonable portrayal of those beholden to this fiercely individualistic lifestyle. It also canonizes Hollywood’s tumultuous, and often unsympathetic, relationship with punk culture; often villainizing that which it did not understand. Though I would not count myself an avid reader of any sort, the few texts I do tend to digest with regularity are the film reference guides and this is assuredly one of the absolute best. Let me begin with a quick introduction to the book’s authors.
Zack Carlson is a programmer for the beloved Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin, TX and hosts the weekly repertory film series, 'Terror Tuesday'. Brian Connolly works at the indescribably comprehensive and movie geek salivation-inducing Vulcan Video here in Austin and is about as knowledgeable about film as any encyclopedia with whom you could ever hope to chat. These two devoted years of their lives to scouring mom-and-pop video chains, VHS warehouses and dumpsters, as well as sometimes being forced to stoop so low as to use the Cracker Jack box of information known as the internet to compile a list of every single film to feature either a central punk character or even the slightest glimpse of a supposed punk cameo or punker extra wandering the unsung backgrounds. As if that weren’t enough, Destroy All Movies also features fascinating interviews with filmmakers, musicians, and other seminal figures in the world of punk cinema.
The result of this gargantuan undertaking is a book that reads as equal parts encyclopedia, joke book, and love letter to a sorely misunderstood cultural movement. It isn’t often that a reference book succeeds at being as entertaining as it is informative, but Destroy All Movies juggles both with masterful ease. The lengths they’ve gone to in order to identify any and all reference to punks or punk rock culture in film is staggering and makes the book the end-all-be-all of its esoteric subject matter. Even if you feel at arms length with the source material, I can assure you there is no shortage of insight and laughter to be gleaned from this glorious time capsule of sociological film knowledge. I myself worried that my lack of comprehension of the punk culture would leave me cold to the book’s intentions. But the electric enthusiasm and comedic genius of the writers pairs nicely with the fact that it will be impossible for even the most novice reader to fail to recognize at least a dozen films from their own collection featured somewhere in the proceedings.
Having gotten to know Zack pretty well over the last year, and from the few conversations I have had with Brian, I cannot attest more avidly to their infectious adoration of the subject and the compelling richness of their personal anecdotes. There are stories directly related to some of the films featured that would have floundered upon tertiary speculation and dull, flat fact resuscitation were this book written by anyone else. The one that leaps immediately to mind is of their sacking an abruptly closed movie house in an effort to save the sequestered pieces of film history locked unjustly inside from a watery refuse. They managed to uncover a lost film from a noted exploitation director so rare that its very existence was the stuff of myth and debate. It isn’t often that any reference book features discovery and heroic devotion to the film art form such as this, let alone one so unassuming and unstoppably fun as Destroy All Movies.
If you like punk rock, punk culture, or films that feature either one to varying degrees of legitimacy, do yourself a favor and buy Destroy All Movies: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film. Look for the fantastic collage of classic movie posters and stills plastering the front and back of the book like beautiful graffiti.