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.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
This week commemorates the birth of a truly great man. If you count yourself a movie fan and the words Brian Trenchard-Smith don’t immediately register in your consciousness, this is a supreme travesty in need of immediate rectification. Brian Trenchard-Smith is an Australian director whose films represent the very finest in what has come to be affectionately dubbed Ozploitation; that is, genre fare from the land down under. After seeing the documentary Not Quite Hollywood, and meeting the man himself at Fantastic Fest, I became intrigued by his work. Turns out his films are not readily available in the States, but thanks to my good friend and life-long BTS junkie Brian Kelley, I have since become versed in his catalogue. In honor of Brian Trenchard-Smith’s birthday, I present a list of some of his absolute best films; all well worth the arduous search necessary to acquire them.
Escape 2000 (AKA Turkey Shoot)
The landscape of b-movies is rife with films depicting men engaging in the hunting of men. And while you’d be hard-pressed to find a title within this nefarious sub-genre that I don’t absolutely love, there is something about those set in Australia that makes me wonder if society may actually be rapidly approaching a future replete with these barbaric games. Escape 2000, not content with the trifle lunacy inherent in its concept, makes every effort to push the bounds of cinematic WTF?! The story is strong, the violence is impossibly entertaining and by the time you reach the film’s werewolf, whom no one is prepared to explain, you’ll understand why BTS is regarded as the Roger Corman of Australia.
The Man From Hong Kong
I’ve seen a goodly number of low-budget kung fu movies in my time. Ordinarily, one makes a few concessions when watching these films. The story will be almost nonexistent, the production values flimsy, and, apart from the fights, the stunts won’t be anything to write home about. BTS soundly turns his nose up at this limitation and brings us one of the most explosive martial arts movies of all time. Jimmy Wang Yu’s brutal hand-to-hand exchanges with baddies are equaled in spectacle by thrilling car chases, high-flying acrobatics, and dubiously safe fire stunts courtesy of innovative water gels. BTS actually demonstrated the “safety” of these water gels to his actors by setting himself ablaze right before their eyes. If you aren’t in love with this film by the time you hear its theme song, Sky High, you may want to check your pulse.
Grant Page is one of the most fearless stuntmen on the planet. The feats he so willingly attempts, at more-than-considerable risk to his own life, are astonishing to behold. While Deathcheaters and Stunt Rock are allegedly two separate films, they are included in tandem on this list due to their similar ambitions. Each one is less a film and more a loosely constructed stage wherein Mr. Page plies his dangerous trade. And while Deathcheaters has what more closely resembles a plot, Stunt Rock has the band/magic act known as Sorcery. Advantage: human race. But plots are completely inconsequential when the alternative is more scenes of Grant cascading down mountain faces, dodging landmines in full sprint, or driving like an invincible demon.
If you ever had a BMX bike as a kid, this is your Citizen Kane…it also helps if you’ve never seen Citizen Kane. When a trio of bipedal rascals comes across a boss set of walkie-talkies, they think they’ve discovered the key to one awesome summer. Too bad the previous owners of those walkie-talkies are arch criminals who would kill to get them back. Few kids movies are as wholeheartedly enjoyable to movie fans of all ages as BMX Bandits. The almost desperate love affair BTS has with BMX bikes shines through with wondrous absurdity. These bikes can go anywhere so there is no shortage of chase scenes involving befuddled adults not being to follow the rambunctious preteens as they ride through malls or…down waterslides? Nicole Kidman stars in one of her earliest film roles and she is just too darn cute for her own good. BMX Bandits is currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly and I highly suggest you do.
The Siege of Firebase Gloria
If his mission was to prove to the world that his talents lay strictly within the confines of the b-movie, BTS made a massive miscalculation with The Siege of Firebase Gloria. A hard-nosed soldier is sent to a dilapidated instillation and must defend it against a steadily advancing Vietcong. Beautifully shot, expertly written and featuring stellar performances from Wings Hauser and Hollywood’s go-to drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey, The Siege of Firebase Gloria is a 100% legitimate war film that excels on every conceivable level. Ermey’s narration adds just enough irreverent laughs to keep the film from taking itself too seriously, but the ending is insanely moving.