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.
Based on Susanna Kaysen's account of being trapped in a mental institution in the late '60s, director James Mangold's "Girl, Interrupted" is a semi-involving tale of identity and belonging featuring a solid performance from Winona Ryder and a spirited, star-making turn from Angelina Jolie.
Ryder stars as Susanna herself, an unhappy, upper-middle-class high school graduate uncertain about her place in American society circa 1967-68. While being moody, depressed and promiscuous might seem normal in the 1990s, in the late '60s, it's enough for Susanna's parents to seriously wonder about their daughter.
After chasing a bottle of alcohol with a bottle of aspirin, the girl's psychiatrist immediately diagnoses her as a borderline personality and subsequently commits her to Claymoore Hospital. That's where the opening line of the movie comes in: "Maybe I was really crazy, maybe it was the '60s, or just a girl, interrupted." For those wondering about the phrase, it's taken from a Vermeer painting ("Girl Interrupted at Her Music"), which played an integral part in Susanna's development.
Unfortunately, the movie chooses not to delve into the ironies and social details of Susanna's memoirs. Instead, the script by Mangold, Anna Hamilton Phelan and Lisa Loomer opts to focus on Susanna's interactions with her fellow mental patients and their nostalgic antics. They laugh. They fight. They sneak out at night to bowl a few frames in the basement.
The characters are mostly presented as types. There's Polly (Elisabeth Moss), a burn victim who has trouble coping with her disfigurement; Daisy (Brittany Murphy), a rich, little girl with a sordid family history and a weird obsession with chicken; and Susanna's roommate, Georgina (Clea Duvall), who seems fairly normal. Watching over this female version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" are a stern but fair nurse named Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg) and, in a few scenes, a philosophy-spouting head psychiatrist named Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave).
The real flesh and blood character of the film is wild and rowdy Lisa (Jolie), an eccentric sociopath who instigates and motivates her co-patients to achieve her own end. A constant escapee from the institution, it's Lisa with whom Susanna becomes most connected. They're fast friends and partners in raucous behavior, but Susanna will learn a thing or two about Lisa's ability to be clever and ever so cold-hearted.
Both Ryder and Jolie are impressive in their roles. Ryder is required mostly to be somber and react to Jolie's more flamboyant behavior, but she's quite believable as a spoiled princess whose depression has caused her to lose touch with reality. She's never really sick; she just needs a wake-up call.
The Jolie character provides a wake-up call and more, with the actress delivering another memorable performance on the heels of her award-winning work in "Gia" and "George Wallace." Never over the top but always teetering on the high wire, Jolie mesmerizes in all of her scenes and should garner plenty of notices for the part. It's her performance as the mad, raving, charismatic ringleader that gets the movie's blood pumping.
That's a good thing, because the direction of "Girl, Interrupted" is more than a few paces too deliberate. Third-time feature director Mangold worked miracles with this sort of slow-building drama in his debut movie, "Heavy," and the underrated "Copland." But here, middling is as middling does. The episodic adventures of Susanna and her crew of misfits aren't enough to sustain interest, especially when the plotting comes across as burdensome as Susanna's weary attempts to get out of bed.
Cinematographer Jack Green lenses the movie with an appropriately sparse and clinical look and feel. A more probing or fully rounded, character-driven script that examines the institutional practices and mores of '60s society would fit perfectly. Instead, the film achieves only moderate success, balanced precariously on strong performances from its two lead stars.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language and content relating to drugs, sexuality and suicide.
Winona Ryder: Susanna Kaysen Angelina Jolie: Lisa Brittany Murphy: Daisy Clea Duvall: Georgina Whoopi Goldberg: Valerie
A Columbia Pictures presentation. Director James Mangold. Screenplay Anna Hamilton Phelan, James Mangold and Lisa Loomer. Memoirs Susanna Kaysen. Producers Cathy Konrad and Douglas Wick. Director of photography Jack N. Green. Editor Kevin Tent. Music Mychael Danna. Production designer Richard Hoover. Costume designer Arianne Phillips. Art director Jeff Knip. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.