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.
Take Me Home Tonight directed by Michael Dowse is a comedy about the ‘80s but its futility is timeless: In just about any decade it would be considered generic and unfunny. Set in 1988 it stars the likable and witty Topher Grace as Matt a recent MIT grad with a crippling case of post-college career-indecision. Working as a lowly clerk at a video store he has a chance encounter with his high-school crush Tori (Teresa Palmer) who to his (and our) surprise actually displays faint interest in him. But Matt fails to pull the trigger and so he resolves to make up for his lack of cojones when he sees her later that evening at a party hosted by the preppy douchebag boyfriend (Chris Pratt) of his twin sister Wendy (Anna Faris).
This sets the stage for an eventual romantic union between Matt and Tori; until then there is insecurity to overcome and wacky adventures to be had. Many of the latter stem from the increasingly unhinged behavior of Matt’s best friend Barry (Dan Fogler). The film turns on a bag of cocaine Barry finds in the glove compartment of a Mercedes stolen from the dealership that fired him earlier in the day. Cocaine is renowned for its ability to induce euphoria in even the most mundane of settings but it has arguably the opposite effect on Take Me Home Tonight. I consider Fogler to be a legitimately funny guy but he has the irritating tendency to compensate for underwritten material by wildly overacting. Throw in a bag of blow and that tendency is amplified ten-fold.
A happy standout in the film is Palmer who brings a liveliness and dignity to the stereotypical rom-com role of the Otherworldly Hottie Who Inexplicably Falls for the Stammering Schlub. (It also helps that she's the only member of the main cast who is young enough to realistically portray a recent college graduate.) She is one of the more talented young Australian exports to arrive on our shores in quite some time and has the potential to become a saucier version of fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman. That is if she finds material better than Take Me Home Tonight.
Writer/director Brian Goodman bases this gritty look at a couple of tough guys growing up in South Boston on his own experiences. The reality he brings to the table is what makes this compelling tale a notch above others in the same genre. We first meet Brian (Mark Ruffalo) and best pal Paulie (Ethan Hawke) as they are caught up in a violent armored car robbery. Their entrée into a life of low-level crime is detailed early on in flashbacks in which they are operating under the guidance of a local criminal Pat (director Goodman). Catching up with them in the present day about 12 years later Brian is now married and has two sons while Paulie is determinedly single. Neither has graduated past the workaday life of the average hoodlum and are still taking their lead from the no-good Pat who decides to teach Brian a lesson by gunning him down and leaving him for dead in the snow. Time in prison -- and a conflict between the two friends -- make up the core of the film’s final act when decisions must be made about the eventual paths their lives will take. Fulfilling his promise as one of the screen’s most underrated actors working today Mark Ruffalo gets a three-dimensional role with real guts and complexity. His sterling performance is gritty and finely detailed immersing himself into this low-life loser who is desperately trying -- and failing -- to lift himself up and find a new life. Ethan Hawke is equally fine even if we just saw him play a similar role last year in Sidney Lumet’s similar crime drama Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Like Ruffalo Hawke completely throws himself into the mind of a Southie and captures the essence of such a character. It’s the two actors’ increasingly conflicted -- and at turns polar opposite -- relationship that makes up the heart of What Doesn't Kill You. Goodman as you might imagine acquits himself nicely in the local criminal role and Amanda Peet nicely underplays Brian’s suffering wife. Donnie Wahlberg (who co-wrote the script) is from that part of the city and adds a good deal of authenticity to his smaller detective role. Brian Goodman an experienced and seasoned actor turns to writing and directing for the first time with remarkably assured self-confidence and a command of exactly what he wants to say. Certainly he’s covering an area he knows well having lived this life in the exact locales in which he’s shooting. With the atmospheric dark gray cinematography of Chris Norr and Robert Hoffman’s sharp editing Goodman’s film delivers with just the right amount of grit and street violence. Mostly though it’s a strong character study. The combination of Goodman’s expertise on the subject and his lead actors’ superlative interpretation pay off in making What Doesn't Kill You so extremely effective. It’s a fascinating and informed look at a place most people will only get to know through the movies.