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.
Star Jones ties the knot in a lavish ceremony
ABC's The View co-host Star Jones married banker Al Reynolds in a star-studded ceremony in New York on Saturday. According to the Associated Press, hundreds of celebrities, friends and family of the couple packed St. Bartholomew's Church to watch 42-year-old Star Jones exchange wedding vows with Reynolds. Jones wore a designer strapless dress with a 27-foot train that required seven people to carry it. Her The View co-host Barbara Walters attended the ceremony that included celebrities like Spike Lee, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Vivica A. Fox. A performance by Patti LaBelle was also included in the wedding ceremony. "I smiled a lot," said Walters. "I was happy for her. She had the biggest smile I'd ever seen." The ceremony lasted until 8 p.m. before moving to the Wardolf-Astoria Hotel for the reception.
Rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard dies unexpectedly
One of the founding members in the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, Ol' Dirty Bastard, 35, collapsed and died in New York on Saturday, Reuters reports. Investigators are not certain why the former rapper died so suddenly. Ol' Dirty Bastard, whose real name is Russell Jones, reported having chest pains during his visit to a recording studio, but paramedics were unable to save him. Although ODB has a history of drug abuse, a spokesperson said that the rapper was clean at the time of his death. After serving three years in a New York City jail for drug offenses and probation violation, Jones was released in 2003. According to Blender magazine, Jones also fathered 13 children.
Diaz and Timberlake sued for assault and battery
Two photographers who claim they were attacked and taunted by the couple outside a ritzy Los Angeles hotel are suing actress Cameron Diaz and pop star boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, the AP reports. Saul Lazo and Jose Gonzalez filed the lawsuit against the power couple on Friday, claiming that they suffered emotional distress and physical harm. Lazo claims that Diaz ran at him, hitting his neck, tripping him, and stealing his camera. Timberlake then allegedly screamed at the bleeding photographer saying, "What ... are you going to do, man? I know you are not going to do anything." Claiming that they were just trying to do their job, Lazo and Gonzalez say that they were standing 10-feet away from the couple when they were ambushed by the Charlie's Angels star outside the Chateau Marmont hotel on Nov. 6.
Jury selection still underway in Blake murder trial
With jury selection continuing today in case against actor Robert Blake, defense attorneys for Robert Blake say that they are looking for jurors who love a good mystery and like to investigate conspiracy theories, the AP reports. Prosecutors against the defendant say that they are looking for conservative people with common sense who can also make quick decisions. With more than 700 potential jurors already dismissed for financial or moral reasons, about 100 jurors remain in the prospective pool. The 71-year-old former Baretta star is being accused of killing his wife outside a restaurant on May 4, 2001. Blake has pleaded not guilty to one count of murder, two counts of solicitation of murder and a special circumstance of lying in wait.
Celebrity couple, Lohan and Valderrama, split
Actress Lindsay Lohan and That 70's Show actor Wilmer Valderrama have ended their relationship, the AP reports. Valderrama's publicist, Heidi Slan said, "They have broken up, but are still friends." Lohan's publicist, Leslie Sloane Zelnik was quoted saying, "I can confirm that they have amicably split, but the two remain close friends and supportive of each other's busy careers." The Mean Girls star and Valderrama became a couple just after her 18th birthday in July and Lohan recently guest starred with Valderrama on his show. Lohan, who was hospitalized on October for extreme fever and headaches, also starred in Freaky Friday and is currently filming the upcoming Herbie: Fully Loaded.
More self-destructing DVDs to reach homes
Movie producers are hoping to create buzz around disposable DVDs by releasing the Christmas-themed movie Noel on Amazon.com. The emotional holiday tale starring Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz and Robin Williams was shown at this year's Toronto Film Festival, but did not create as much interest as expected. Atlanta-based Convex group then bought distribution rights to the movie, and plans to release it in a few dozen theatres. After a short release, the movie can be seen on cable television, then the DVD will be available on sale at Amazon.com at $4.99 per unit. Once opened, each DVD can only "live" up to 60 hours, after which the player's laser will be unable to read the movie. The concept of disposable DVDs has been available for a while, but the potential for wasted plastic to add to already overflowing landfills is a problem.