Tim Grierson Reviews ‘Madagascar 3’ & ‘Prometheus’


Photo by Dream Work
“Madagascar 3”

The “Madagascar” series may not be quite as beloved as the “Toy Story” or “Shrek” films, but with its third installment, “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” it’s hard to argue that it’s not still a lively, likable franchise. The new film finds lion Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (voiced by Chris Rock), and the rest of the gang joining a rundown European circus in the hope of landing the interest of an American investor, which will bring them back to their home in the Central Park Zoo. With strong voice work from the likes of Bryan Cranston, Jessica Chastain, and Martin Short as performing animals trying to recapture their circus’ old glory, “Madagascar 3” will play better with kids than with adults thanks to its slapstick gags, but it’s a consistently amusing ride with enough genuine sentiment underneath to keep parents engaged.

Though it stars Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, and Charlize Theron, the real draw of “Prometheus” is its utterly extraordinary visual design, overseen by director Ridley Scott. Sadly, this “Alien” prequel isn’t as striking from a narrative perspective, bringing together a crew of scientists on a remote planet that may hold the key to humanity’s origins but most certainly possesses some nasty extraterrestrials. Fassbender is perfection as a super-intelligent, slightly haughty android — he could be a distant relative to the HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — but much of the rest of the cast suffer from underwritten roles. All in all, “Prometheus” pleases the eye more than the brain, but its elegant tension is handled so masterfully that you may not mind the plot holes too terribly.

Generations clash to very little comedic effect in “Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding,” which casts Jane Fonda as a die-hard hippie living in Woodstock, N.Y., who receives a visit from her daughter (Catherine Keener), a conservative New York City lawyer going through a midlife crisis. This sets the stage for lots of very obvious friction between the two women, who haven’t spoken in decades. (Don’t worry: Their conflict will be resolved in the most predictable, feel-good ways possible.) The leads are both fine actors, but the film’s hokey execution succeeds in stripping them of their usual warmth and grace. If the familial reconciliation isn’t stultifying enough, there’s also a generic coming-of-age story line with which to contend, although Elizabeth Olsen (as Keener’s prickly daughter) at least cuts through the cutesiness some with a grounded performance. Still, don’t give “Peace” a chance.

The significantly charming comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed” provides budding indie star Mark Duplass with his richest performance to date. Aubrey Plaza and Jake M. Johnson play journalists investigating an odd classified ad seeking a companion for time travel. Their search leads them to Kenneth (Duplass), who seems like a sweet enough fellow, except for the fact that he swears he can leap through time. Wistful and sincere when it’s not hilarious, “Safety Not Guaranteed” morphs from a film about lovable losers into an unexpectedly touching story of second chances. Previously, Duplass has been deeply empathetic in mumblecore films such as “Humpday,” but there are more layers to his portrayal here, leaving us unsure until the very end just how imbalanced his character may actually be.

Another indie hero, Greta Gerwig, doesn’t fare as well in her star vehicleLola Versus.” She plays Lola, an emotionally disheveled New Yorker left reeling after her fiancé dumps her. What transpires is a fairly predictable roundelay of hipster self-absorption and romantic insecurity, but Gerwig gives it a little heft thanks to her dependably likable presence. Lola may be an indecisive, whiny mess, but the actor’s nimble intelligence goes a long way toward suggesting the mature woman Lola could someday become.

Give Robert Pattinson kudos for stretching. Most identified as Edward from the “Twilight” series, the 26-year-old heartthrob mixes things up in “Bel Ami,” an intriguing but unsatisfying period drama. The soulless, impoverished Georges (Pattinson) wants to enter upper-class Parisian society, so he utilizes his one talent: seducing wealthy women (including Kristin Scott Thomas, Uma Thurman, and Christina Ricci). Based on the Guy de Maupassant novel, the satiric “Bel Ami” struggles to balance its political intrigue and bedroom shuffling, but while his supporting cast glides along with the film’s tart tone, Pattinson is a bit blank. He’s playing a callous manipulator, but his dramatic emptiness feels less like a choice and more like a permanent affliction.

With his first films, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness,” writer-director Todd Solondz established himself as a sardonic chronicler of outsiders. Nearly two decades later, his new film “Dark Horse” remains very much in that milieu, but this comedy is one of his most heartbreaking. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a lazy 30-something nerd who still lives with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow), but perhaps his luck will change after he gets involved with a beautiful but depressed young woman (Selma Blair). “Dark Horse” is an observant portrait of suburban failure, and Gelber is terrific at making Abe an angry, self-deluded fool who remains oddly sympathetic. The entire cast is nicely attuned to Solondz’s deadpan, melancholy vibe, but best of all may be Donna Murphy as Abe’s mousy co-worker who, like everyone in this film, seems to be drowning in quiet desperation.

Paul Williams was a popular 1970s songwriter and performer, writing hits for the Carpenters, Barbra Streisand, and the Muppets. So what happened to him? Director Stephen Kessler decided to find out, tracking down his boyhood idol and convincing him to be the subject of a documentary. The result, “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” is undeniably affectionate, but be warned: Kessler is as much the star of this film as Williams is, offering a running commentary and endlessly kvetching about whether Williams likes him. Some may find it endearing, but I confess I soon grew tired of Kessler’s passive-aggressive routine. There’s a great documentary to be made about the uncomfortable relationship between adoring, needy filmmaker and reticent, faded subject. Unfortunately, “Paul Williams: Still Alive” isn’t it.


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