Penguins of Madagascar: Animated sequel just does enough to enjoy

Dreamworks’ latest animated franchise feature film plays up what happens behind the scenes with some of your favorite characters when they’re alone.

In this case, those lovable penguins from the “Madagascar” series are secret agents.

Ironically enough, this very loose and broad plot structure plays out much better than “Horrible Bosses 2.” It could be because of the lighter nature of the film, which targets kids 8-12, or just the fact that viewers are more forgiving of animation than regular film.

While the four penguins themselves are voiced by lesser known actors, the supporting cast is littered with big name actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich, who always plays a compelling villain regardless of whether or not you can see his face.

Adults will enjoy the special homage to spy films of yesteryear as the lovable foursome replicate a secret takedown of Fort Knox ala “Goldfinger” and dodge ruffian octopi in the waterways of Venice in a hilarious take off from the Venice chase scene in “Moonraker.”

The film is bright and colorful, jumping from landscape to landscape as the penguins trot across the globe on their mission to save penguin-kind and it’s that lightness that keeps viewers engaged and the movie afloat.

No prior knowledge of the “Madagascar” franchise is necessary to enjoy this humorous, yet slightly long animated comedy that will delight adults and children alike.


The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1: Jennifer Lawrence proves critical to franchise success

Lionsgate got really lucky.

The movie studio, hoping to leapfrog on the success of the “Twilight” film franchise, dove headfirst into the young adult book trilogy market, coming away with a violent dystopian world and needing a female lead to match Bella of “Twilight” fame.

When they cast the girl from “The Bill Engvall Show,” they probably had no idea that she would become the most successful young actress in years, dominating multiple movie franchises and single-handedly carrying the studio forward in much the same way that Katniss carries the rebellion in Lionsgate’s latest installment of the “Hunger Games” series.

What separates the “Hunger Games” films from “Divergent” or the “Maze Runner” is the difference between Lawrence and Shailene Woodley.

Woodley, a nice up-and-coming actress in her own right, could settle into a Kristen Stewart career arc with a little less venom from the general public.

Lawrence, on the other hand, is an Academy Award-winning transcendent talent on screen, who makes “Mockingjay Part 1” something more than a cheap sequel in a way Shia Lebeouf was never able to pull off following the original “Transformers” installment.

As the famed Joan of Arc-like Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence provides the character much more depth and emotional layering than the series deserves.

“Mockingjay Part 1” is much darker than the previous two installments in the Hunger Games franchise, which is surprising to say, based on how much “Battle Royale”-esque violence pervades the first two films.

The film isn’t without its major flaws.

Julianne Moore is an abysmal choice to play the rebellion’s president, a wholly unlikeable character lacking in emotion or depth.

It’s as if Moore intended on copying Kate Winslet’s static performance in “Divergent” while reading lines from the Suzanne Collins novel.

Forcing Elizabeth Banks’ Effie back into the movie was also a mistake as her presence provides an unwelcome distraction and only muddles an already verbose script.

The film overly glorifies planning and exposition for exposition’s sake, with its two-hour running time easily needing a good 20 minutes hacked out of the middle.

A tremendous effort from Lawrence and a surprising, yet impactful supporting performance from Josh Hutcherson — especially in the film’s final moments — make “Mockingjay Part 1” salvageable and the inevitable “Part 2” something worth looking forward to.


Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): Keaton shines in superhero actor rebound

It isn’t quite fair to say Michael Keaton is back thanks to his often brilliant performance in “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) because, despite his long absence, Keaton has never performed at this high a level.

Fact melds well with fiction as Keaton’s struggles to overcome the shadow of his role as Batman parallel his character Riggan’s difficulty separating himself mentally from the super hero character Birdman that made him a movie star 20 years ago.

The angst Riggan feels throughout the film is identifiable for the viewer because of Keaton’s presence on screen. George Clooney and Matt Damon cannot make that kind of connection with the audience because of how personal the role feels for Keaton.

Though Keaton is tremendous in a role clearly built for him, he’s not the reason to see perhaps the most innovative film in 2014.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, best known for “21 Grams” and “Babel,” has plotted an intense thriller schemed as a black comedy through the use of extended one-take camera shots that leave the viewer wondering how in the world filmmakers pulled it off.

Well-pulled off digital trickery as well as creative camera and editing work make “Birdman” feel like one continuous long take with seamless transitions from one scene to the next.

“Birdman” also boasts a terrific supporting cast, including Emma Stone as Keaton’s recovering addict daughter, a calm Zach Galifianakis as Keaton’s best friend and lawyer and Oscar nominee Amy Ryan as Keaton’s ex-wife.

All give quality performances, but pale in comparison to the tour de force effort from Edward Norton who provides the perfect foil as Keaton’s acting partner.

It’s going to be difficult for “Birdman” to find wide mainstream appeal as its highly complex psychology and frantic cinematic style won’t resonate with a larger percentage of audiences.

It doesn’t help that the film lambasts these same viewers in its not-so-subtle critique of the Hollywood superhero film genre.

“Birdman” seeks out more sophisticated viewers — the kind who prefer a dramatic Broadway play to “Iron Man 3” — and makes no bones about the latter being a lesser form of art.

Viewers need to appreciate “Birdman” for the artwork and not necessarily the message if they want to enjoy one of the year’s most innovative pieces of filmmaking.


Whiplash: Strike up the band for visual jazz experience

How can you see jazz? It’s easy to hear and a delight to listen to, but how can one visualize jazz in pictures rather than sounds?

Is it in a contrast of colors? Harsh browns and tans counterbalancing bright hues of blue? The dueling colors of black and white intermixing like yin and yang.

The best independent film of our time — winner of both the audience and grand jury awards at the 30th Sundance Film Festival in January — explores just such a topic.

“Whiplash,” which easily moves into the top spot as 2014’s best film, features Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in an emotional tug-of-war style dance that engulfs the viewer in a 106-minute free-style jazz duet of obsession and the pursuit of greatness.

Teller’s Andrew, a first-year jazz student at one of the country’s top music schools, goes head-to-head with top band instructor Simmons in a game of cat-and-mouse musical psychology featuring some of the best back and forth dialogue this side of “Silence of the Lambs.”

Director Damien Chazelle‘s second foray into feature-length filmmaking is a cinematic spectacle from the opening seconds with young drum prodigy Andrew plodding away at his kit through the visually stunning final performance sequence that amounts to beautiful musical combat.

Each and every note, both visually and audibly, is carefully crafted by Chazelle and right on point thanks in large part to a brilliant cutting by the film’s editor Tom Cross, who splices together the most stunning musical sequences filmed in nearly a decade.

Teller, a drummer in his own right, plays all of Andrew’s music with fervor. All of the remaining musicians in the film are accomplished professionals or music students, which gives the movie added authenticity.

The soundtrack is worth a listen on its own, but viewers should take care to see the film prior to listening to the score in its entirety as several scenes between Teller and Simmons are included as tracks.

While jazz is definitely the driving force of “Whiplash,” the film is — at its core — a spiraling case of obsession.

Both leads turn in the best performances of their careers, with a resurrected Paul Reiser playing a key supporting role as Teller’s father.

The tense dynamic between teacher and student is brought to fortissimo thanks in large part to the effortless chemistry Simmons and Teller share on screen.

Intentional or not, “Whiplash” is visual jazz, audio art come to life on screen in deep, richer layers of color and a film sure to be atop most critics’ best of 2014 lists.


Dumb and Dumber To: The name says it all

“Dumb and Dumber To,” the sequel to the 1994 cult classic comedy starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, is one big, long gag.

Unfortunately, the gag’s on the viewers.

Unlike the also poor prequel “Dumb and Dumber: When Harry Met Lloyd,” this 2014 sequel brings back the original stars Carrey and Daniels in order to entice moviegoers into the theater.

A moderate amount of comedy similar to the original can be found in “Dumb and Dumber To,” but there is an added depth of raunchy comedy that takes the film to an all-time low.

The tenor of the humor isn’t the disappointing part; the execution (or general lack thereof) is the film’s biggest flaw.

Jokes fall flat when they can be seen a million miles away and the awkward tension between normal and dumb people that characterized the first film just isn’t to be found in the sequel.

In this way, “Dumb and Dumber To” suffers many of the same flaws that “Anchorman 2” did with its overuse of Steve Carell’s character, Brick Tamland.

This lackluster effort by the writer/director duo of Peter and Bobby Farrelly combined with a Carrey performance set on cruise control isn’t worth the time or money for viewers to see.

Fans of the original film would be best off just waiting until it hits basic cable next year.

Even then, it’s a major disappointment, but at least you won’t have spent any money on it.


Interstellar: Christopher Nolan hits space odyssey out of the park


Everything about the space odyssey “Interstellar” crafted from the mind of director Christopher Nolan oozes with the grandiose brushstrokes of a supreme master of cinema.

One of 2014’s best offerings, the film is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise lifeless year of filmmaking.

Where most new movies lack creativity and originality, “Interstellar” bathes in it. There is no other movie like “Interstellar,” a rare feat in cinema.

Watching the film in its native IMAX is an experience all to itself as the cinematography and visual stimuli on a mammoth screen help give “Interstellar” the weight and impact that is needed to completely immerse the viewer into the experience Nolan creates.

So much of the film is shot using IMAX-specific cameras that missing out on the “Interstellar” experience on an IMAX screen is like showing up 30 minutes into the film and expecting to see a complete movie.

The sound could be turned off completely and “Interstellar” would still be better than 90 percent of this year’s releases. Those wanting to see Nolan paint his way through a space odyssey will not be disappointed in the least.

While the obvious draw of the film is its cinematic brilliance, the movie is filled with a star-studded, but perfectly chosen cast of actors led by Matthew McConaughey in yet another career defining role. His performance is nuanced and understated simultaneously, equally balancing love for his children and the weight of the world on his shoulders.

The cast is deep and very strong, with terrific performances from Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, a deceivingly charismatic Matt Damon in a supporting role, Casey Affleck and John Lithgow.

Perhaps the best performance in the whole film is given by Jessica Chastain, who continues her run as one of the best character actresses of this generation while making the absolute most out of her character lacking in screen time and development.

People will say that “Interstellar” is too long (two hours and 49 minutes), too slow (at times, they’re right) or too high concept (you don’t need a degree in theoretical physics to understand the movie, but it would probably help.)

Do not make the mistake of spoiling yourself on the plot in hopes of understanding it better. The less you know, the better off you will be.

Like Nolan’s “Inception,” “Interstellar” is a film that needs to be experienced with a completely open mind and will likely take several screenings before the viewer can ultimately understand all the complexities of the film.


Big Hero 6: Disney pairs family friendly, superhero genres for success

There’s been a dearth of family-friendly films this year, and what limited selection there has been is underwhelming to say the least.

Enter a fluffy white, lighthearted balloon robot with a “non-threatening, huggable design” named Baymax to save the day.

Disney’s latest animated release “Big Hero 6,” loosely based on the 1990s Marvel comic book series is a heart-warming tale about love and loss, masked as a superhero origin tale.

There’s not much original or inventive about the film’s plot, which sees a group of tech-geek teens overcome the death of a brother and friend to become a crime-fighting vigilante group. On its own, the film would just be another mediocre entry into the family film genre.

Baymax, a health-care robot created by main character Hiro’s older brother, brings “Big Hero 6” out of its lackluster shell and reveals the soft and compelling underbelly of the film.

Voiced by veteran comedic character actor Scott Adsit of “30 Rock” fame, Baymax shines brightest as his limited ability to comprehend modern jargon like “fist bump” and inability to harm others make him an unlikely candidate to become a super hero.

The visuals of “Big Hero 6” are on point for the most part, though only a few action sequences will blow viewers away, but that’s not the reason for seeing the film.

Like the Minions of “Despicable Me,” the whole reason for viewers to see “Big Hero 6” is for the light-hearted humor of Baymax, well demonstrated in the film’s trailer.

Viewers spend the first 20 minutes waiting for Baymax to finally make his appearance, but once he hits the screen, the best thing about “Big Hero 6” rarely leaves the frame, saving the rest of the film.

Incidentally, before “Big Hero 6,” Disney includes a much more complete and very moving short film entitled “Feast,” which focuses on a starving orphaned dog and the love he finds with an owner who adopts him off the street.

Kids will love Winston the puppy as much as they will be begging for a Baymax toy.


Nightcrawler: Gyllenhaal dominates screen in mesmerizing performance

You’ll probably need more than one viewing to fully appreciate the incredibly cerebral “Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a neurotic loner who stumbles into a career as a “nightcrawler” — a freelance television cameraman tasked with filming crime scenes and car accidents.

Though its trailer focuses more on the action, “Nightcrawler” is a fairly “talky” film, with Gyllenhaal’s Lou getting most of the movie’s best — and most ominous — lines.

Lou’s insistence to his intern that he “will never ask you to do something that he would not do himself,” is a common enough phrase used in business taken to a bone-chilling and intense level when viewers actually learn what Lou will do to be first and best at filming a crime scene.

The faint at heart will not appreciate some of the imagery depicted in the gruesome scenes that match the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality of the television news programs the film is centered around.

Gyllenhaal invokes Robert De Niro’s performance in “Taxi Driver” with an added sense of charisma and gravitas, the perfect anti-hero you don’t want to like, but somehow do anyway.

The film is “Collateral” in a different part of Los Angeles almost to a fault. Gyllenhaal gives a better performance than Tom Cruise, but without the benefit of having an actor the caliber of Jamie Foxx riding shotgun.

“Nightcrawler,” like its leading character, is inherently and fatally flawed. So much of the film is dark and brooding, with snarky humor built in to cut the tension in just the right ways.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy hits the mark nine times out of 10 in scenes, with only minor exceptions.

Where the film doesn’t work is in its obtrusive score by James Newton Howard, whose work distracts and conflicts with the rest of the film. Few movies get the soundtrack so wrong in key moments, especially midway through the film as any tension in a scene between Gyllenhaal and a refined Rene Russo is smashed by music more befitting a Disney feature.

Overall, the film is a unique mixture of several top-notch movies that preceded it. It’s “Network” in a “Collateral” world; a modern-day “Taxi Driver” meets “L.A. Confidential” with just a sprinkling of “The Usual Suspects” for good measure.

The best films of 2014 — and it’s sure to continue — are going to be movies like “Nightcrawler” and “Gone Girl” before it, films that are not as straight forward as they appear at first glance, foreboding and requiring intense concentration by the moviegoer to enjoy.


St. Vincent: Indie dramedy a work of art for Bill Murray

“St. Vincent” doesn’t work without Bill Murray.

The film, which centers around a crotchety old drunk gambler who takes care of his neighbor’s son to pay off gambling debts, could have been made with any number of other actors.

However, it’s only “Saturday Night Live” vet Murray who can handle the humor required to make the majority of the film enjoyable enough to balance the weighty drama underneath the comedic exterior of the film.

Dual-billed alongside slapstick comedienne Melissa McCarthy, Murray single-handedly carries “St. Vincent” in large segments of the film and offers the necessary nonchalant attitude required of Vincent in setting up the film’s most dramatic scenes.

McCarthy is nearly an after-thought in the film, overshadowed not only by Murray’s tremendous performance, but also by a heart-warming effort from newcomer Jaeden Lieberher as Murray’s young ward and an unrecognizable Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian stripper.

Heartwarming and affable, “St. Vincent” can be considered somewhat of a comedic partner to the darker and more successful “Gran Torino,” a Clint Eastwood tour de force, without the weighty racial and political undertones.

While a large portion of the film deals with modern-day saints, “St. Vincent” is not overtly religious in nature, but finds the most in its flawed characters.


John Wick: Keep expectations low and enjoy the ride

Nothing much is surprising about the latest action thriller “John Wick,” except for the fact that it isn’t completely terrible.

The plot is raw and unoriginal — vengeful assassin Keanu Reeves takes out a lot of bad people after they steal his car and kill his dog, a final present from his dying wife.

Every indication points in the direction of an absolute bust of a movie. The trailer is downright comical in the worst possible way.

It shouldn’t make sense that “a vengeful Keanu Reeves” is something anyone really wants to see, given what poor quality Reeves has put out over the last decade.

Yet somehow, despite all the tell-tale red flags of a poor movie, “John Wick” overcomes them all and is actually a pretty serviceable traditional action film, reminiscent of a more modern homage to “The Boondock Saints,” a film about vigilante killers who don’t really have, or need, a good reason to kill the bad guys.

Forget the plot. It’s unimportant. Skip over the uneven acting of leads Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki.

What “John Wick” excels at is replicating the action and excitement of “The Matrix” films without any science fiction jargon or the overly technical philosophical implications.

People need to die and John Wick is the guy who needs to kill them.

That kind of film isn’t for everyone, but ardent action fans will appreciate a quality traditional action thriller that isn’t burdened with too many stars (“The Expendables” series) or too many sequels (“Taken” series).


Fury: A sign of good things still to come from Hollywood

If “Fury” is any indication of the direction cinema is headed for the rest of 2014, it’s a good time to be a film fanatic.

Coming off the release of David Fincher’s terrific thriller “Gone Girl,” it was hard to imagine Hollywood providing any level of consistency in the quality of filmmaking heading into the final few months of the year, but the action epic “Fury” puts out a tremendous effort just short of remarkable.

Director David Ayer, best known as the writer of “Training Day” and the director of “End of Watch,” provides a nearly perfect fictionalized account of a lone American tank stuck behind enemy lines in World War II Germany.

Interestingly enough, “Fury” is the first movie since 1946 in which an actual German “Tiger” tank was used in filming instead of a prop one.

“Fury” is strongest in close quarters, when the film’s stars Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LeBeouf, Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena are encased within the tank itself, hammering home an “us-against-the-world” mentality that resonates throughout the film.

Ayer’s script and direction insist upon a heavy message concerning the consequences of war on both its participants and the innocent citizens who have to endure hardships as a result of fighting.

Where the movie becomes disjointed is a lengthy character development sequence outside the tank as Pitt and Lerman encounter a pair of German women in their apartment and force the women to dine with them.

Independent of the rest of “Fury,” the scene and its subsequent section with the rest of the tank’s crew is compelling drama. It just doesn’t fit within the rest of the movie, making “Fury” disjointed.

Some moderate editing could have improved the pacing and made the scene seem less like an homage to the opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”

The film is gripping and brutal in its tense action sequences, which occur both inside and outside the tank.

“Fury” has an uphill battle to climb as there’s no shortage of World War II films to choose from. This isn’t “Saving Private Ryan” or “Patton” and isn’t meant to be.

When seen outside the context of more complete films, “Fury” stands out for its strong main cast and terrifically gripping final action sequence. It’s a sign that good things are still to come out of Hollywood this fall.


Gone Girl: Chilling tale makes great use of Affleck, Pike

That subversive grin smeared across Ben Affleck’s face has been plastered all over television and social media for weeks now as “Gone Girl,” the David Fincher adaptation of the best-selling Gillian Flynn novel, hit theaters at the beginning of the month.

It’s a smart marketing ploy and an ingenious casting choice by Fincher to center his film around Affleck, whose natural charm mixed with the public’s general disdain for anything he’s been involved in before “Gone Baby Gone” make him the ideal guy you’re supposed to hate in a film where Affleck’s character is believed to be involved in the disappearance of his wife.
Fincher has often made smart casting choices that underlie the nature of the character by using public perception of the actor in his favor, most notably Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker in “The Social Network.”

But it’s not Affleck’s terrific performance that stands out in “Gone Girl.” He is very good to be sure, but the shadowing presence of Rosamund Pike as his wife is transformative in a way that few actresses have been able to accomplish.

Seen through voiceovers and flashback sequences for much of the film, Pike gives weight to the titular ‘gone girl’ Amy in a way that draws the viewer in without becoming too overbearing. The performance, played on a razor’s edge, is a delicate balance between naivety and awareness as the tension mounts between two lovers falling out of love.

Typical of a David Fincher film, “Gone Girl” is eloquent in its cinematography from the opening sequence of Affleck getting the morning paper on his front lawn to all the psychological tension that evokes his classic “Se7en” and the recent hit “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.”

It’s unfortunate that quite possibly the best film to be released in 2014 will walk away with zero Academy Award wins and only a few nominations, but that’s certainly an easy assumption given voter history in recent years to avoid commercially-successful films.

Both leads — Pike, especially — are worthy of significant consideration and lead a talented supporting cast that includes brilliant performances by Neil Patrick Harris as an obsessed former lover and Tyler Perry as a pitch-perfect criminal defense attorney.

“Gone Girl” is the best film, bar none, to be released thus far in 2014 and there are few contenders that will be able the 149-minute thrill ride.