Penguins of MadagascarPENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR

Penguins of Madagascar opens with a sweeping overhead shot of an (animated) Antarctic expanse, which eventually lands on an orderly march of flightless waterfowl. This introduction is narrated by a documentarian voiced by Werner Herzog, who informs us, in the director's unmistakable German-accented English, that we're to witness penguins in all their natural glory - right before he orders a crew member to shove a few off a cliff, just to see what will happen. Between Herzog, the environmental-doc satire, and the sheer goofiness of it all, this prelude is such a fantastically funny way to start directors Eric Darnell's and Simon J. Smith's spin-off that it immediately leaves you anticipating a movie that'll be smart and hilarious throughout. Would you settle, though, for smart and moderately amusing?

I guess I would; all told, Penguins struck me as the flakiest and most agreeably silly of Madagascar's three follow-ups. (Among the outings in Dreamworks' series, the best moments here are rivaled only by Frances McDormand's channeling of Edith Piaf in Europe's Most Wanted, and maybe by Chris Rock's "Afro Circus" routine.) Yet it's also, for this adult at least, an odd and incredibly rare kind of disappointment: an animated family comedy so relentlessly clever that I admired the jokes more than I ever laughed at them. That admiration, in many regards, is actually inseparable from the jokes. Penguins' casting of John Malkovich as an aggrieved octopus and Benedict Cumberbatch as a foxy British wolf is ingenious, to be sure. But the actors' singular readings are more entertaining than what they're given to say, and there's so little breathing room between puns and visual gags that it's easy to grow exhausted by the onslaught. I applaud the filmmakers for mostly eschewing the momentum-stalling moralizing and Life Lessons that so frequently dull an adult's interest in these sorts of things. I also wish they had dialed back the incessant lunacy by about 20 percent, so we could better appreciate the more inspired bursts of wackiness. Penguins of Madagascar is like a box of Lucky Charms that's all marshmallows.

Its narrative suffers from a similar much-too-muchness. In the film, Malkovich's eight-armed Dave - a bug-eyed nutjob who routinely disguises himself as a human scientist - plans to forever rid penguins of their cuteness through a device that will turn them into growling monsters and, consequently, no longer endear them to cooing zoo visitors or European documentarians. That's a spectacular premise, and I probably would've been perfectly content if the whole movie focused on Dave's nefarious plot and the penguin quartet attempting to thwart him: Skipper, the tough one; Private, the adorable one; Rico, the insane one; and Kowalski, the other one. (As team leader Skipper, who thinks himself the noir hero of his own gumshoe novel, Tom McGrath sounds a lot like Phil Hartman impersonating Charlton Heston.) But while I was ever-delighted to hear those mellifluous Benedict Cumberbatch cadences, I could have handily done without the arrival, and excessive screen time, of his wolf's team of secret-agent animals who push events, all too predictably, into Marvel terrain. Aside from Cumberbatch's, none of these characters (voiced by the likes of Peter Stormare and Ken Jeong) says or does anything funny or memorable, and their kinetic yet dull chases, rescues, and action scenes are a consistent drag on Penguins' wordplay.

But then again, even the wordplay, at times, gets to be a drag. For no discernible reason, the movie finds Dave routinely barking orders to his octopus underlings in ways that form celebrity names: "Hugh! Jack! Man the stations!"; "Drew! Barry! More power!" This is enjoyable enough the first couple of times it happens. But the screenwriters rework this mildly witty conceit so strenuously, up through the film's final minutes, that it overpowers the punchlines ("Kevin! Bake on!"), and the same holds true for most of the repeated gags; once you get the joke - as with Kowalski's knack for uttering truths no one wants to hear, and Rico's habit of swallowing everything in sight - it's little more than slight variations on the joke over and over. There are numerous terrific elements to be found, including a lovely silhouetted nod to the series' animals who don't appear in this sequel. But for all of its fun, what winds up missing from Penguins of Madagascar, unfortunately, is the element of surprise.

 

Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, and Jason Bateman in Horrible Bosses 2HORRIBLE BOSSES 2

As there aren't really any bosses for Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day to enact revenge upon - just Christoph Waltz's business tycoon, whom the guys don't even work for - I'm a little confused about why director Sean Anders' slapstick sequel is titled Horrible Bosses 2. With the leading characters now dangerously unqualified entrepreneurs starting their own company, wouldn't Horrible Bosses, Too be more appropriate? Maybe, but given that the brilliant comedian Keegan-Michael Key shows up right at the start and is bizarrely forced to play straight man to our constantly nattering trio, I pretty much stopped asking "Why?!?" after the film's first five minutes. If you can get past its tortuously forced and unfunny opening half hour, which might prove impossible, this follow-up to 2011's summertime hit isn't without laughs - some of them big laughs. Almost none of them, however, have anything to do with the plot involving the kidnapping of Chris Pine's heir to Waltz's fortune, a setup so half-imagined and listlessly executed that not even the performers appear to be giving it their attention. (Equally unamusing is every scene with Jennifer Aniston's sexpot dentist, an unconvincing, obvious caricature whom Bateman's Nick incomprehensibly falls for. How is it that we remember the events of the first Horrible Bosses better than Nick does?)

Yet while the only lasting pleasure I got from this tired, generically crass endeavor came from knowing I'd never have to see it again, there are a half-dozen or so moments that I might just have to revisit when the movie inevitably starts streaming online. The 9 to 5 joke is one of them, as is the throwaway in which the guys play "F---, Marry, Kill" with the Brady boys as their subjects. (We're given a couple more "FMK" games during the closing credits, but Anders saved the right one for the film proper.) I'll likely re-watch a few of Sudeikis' and Day's more dumb-ass routines together - the ones, such as any sequence involving walkie-talkies, that bring Bateman to a state of higher dudgeon than usual. And while I'll no doubt skip any scene with Waltz (miscast and looking like he knows it) or Breaking Bad's wonderful Jonathan Banks (looking distractingly unwell), Horrible Bosses 2 might be worth another quick look for the withering contempt of an imprisoned Kevin Spacey, who chides our clueless heroes for their complete lack of balls. The movie doesn't really have any, either, but I've certainly sat through eunuch sequels with fewer riotous bits than this one.

 

Gael Garcia Bernal in RosewaterROSEWATER

Unless you know the backstory behind its inception, the political thriller Rosewater - currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene - might seem a strange choice for Jon Stewart's writing/directing debut. An account, based on the memoir Then They Came for Me, of the four months Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari was unjustly detained in an Iranian prison, the film is intense and frightening, with a documentary-style vérité that holds you from its first minutes. Yet not long into the movie, with Bahari (played here by Gael García Bernal) covering the 2009 presidential election in Tehran, we see the Iranian-born journalist as the willing subject of a television interview - one conducted, on-screen as in life, by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart correspondent Jason Jones. The comic's tongue-in-cheek references to Bahari's activities as a spy, and Bahari's smiling complicity in what is clearly a joke, capture the attention of the Iranian police, who, lacking irony, quickly deduce that he must be a spy. Imprisonment, deprivation, and beatings follow, and Stewart has gone on record saying that his making Rosewater was an attempt at atonement - a cinematic apology for unknowingly causing Bahari's 118 days of suffering.

As personal reasons for making films go, that one is pretty unimpeachable. Yet the great shock of Rosewater - its title taken from the heavy cologne worn by Bahari's chief tormentor - is that Stewart's lingering guilt hasn't resulted in a dour and funereal picture. Quite the opposite, actually. For all of its prison setting's grimness and oppression, the movie also hums with intelligence, vitality, empathy, and graceful humor. (Also with impressively rendered flights of imagination, as Bahari, alone in his cell, has frequent conversations with the ghosts of his departed father and sister.) The scenes between the blindfolded Bahari and his interrogator Javadi (Kim Bodnia), especially, exude a scary intimacy, with the latter's gruff, whispered threats continually suggesting, "I don't want to have to hurt you, bu-u-ut ... ." At its core, though, Rosewater is about the fundamental necessity of common sense, and even the ability to laugh, in the face of political oppression, and while his work is exemplary overall, it's here where Stewart proves himself the right man for this particular job. It's hard to imagine another writer/director who could find and deliver such joy within such a constrictive setting: Bahari learning that his pregnant wife is having a girl and, while Javadi beats and berates him, finding it impossible to suppress his happy giggles; Bahari realizing that the key to his release lies in giving his captor the hilariously salacious lies he's desperate for. (The reporter paints New Jersey as a land of endless debauchery and sexual freedom, just as Javadi always imagined.) Beautifully acted, exceptionally well-shot (by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski), and thoroughly engaging, Rosewater is a humane and moving experience - maybe not worth four months of imprisonment, but definitely worth an hour's drive to Iowa City.

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