Anyone who thinks that the Madagascar franchise is all about the Benjamin (Stiller, that is) has seriously overrated the importance of marquee names to animated flicks. With rare exception (say, Eddie Murphy in the Shrek works), the most memorable cartoon characters have nothing to do with A-list casting (who even remembers that Bruce Willis starred in Over the Hedge?) and everything to do with matching the tone with the toon (I ask you, what superstar could have done better than relatively unknown Patton Oswalt as Ratatouille’s Remy?). So while the cast of Madagascar and its new sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, is headed by Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith, it’s really all about the penguins, baby. Certainly, Stiller (as Alex the lion), Schwimmer (Melman the giraffe), Pinkett Smith (Gloria the hippo) and especially Rock (Marty the zebra) do their part to make these movies two of the few tolerable non-Pixar/non-Miyazaki toon tales of recent times, but what truly blesses the pair is the presence of the flightless fowl. Led by Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath, co-director of both films), these penguins are among the least sentimental of all animated characters in the history of the film medium. Their cynicism shines through at every turn: After they run over a pesky human with a jeep, one asks, “Is she dead?” When informed that she’s not, he then tries to run over her again. Somehow, I don’t see Mickey or Porky taking this course of action. If this follow-up isn’t as good as its predecessor, that’s largely because the warmed-over central storyline -- so similar to The Lion King that there’s even a Scar stand-in -- has to compete with various other plot threads so diffuse that no real narrative momentum is ever established; there’s a rushed sense that wasn’t present in the first picture. But whenever the penguins pop up for their welcome routine, the movie takes flight.
Rarely has patience been such a virtue than when faced with Rachel Getting Married, which gets off to an extremely rough start before eventually finding its stride. Movies about dysfunctional families -- even dysfunctional fam ilies prepping for an upcoming marriage ceremony -- are trotted out by indie-minded filmmakers with alarming regularity, but better to spend some time with Rachel at the wedding than with Margot at the Wedding. Anne Hathaway, unfairly overlooked in such efforts as Brokeback Mountain and The Devil Wears Prada, commands most of the attention -- from both audience members and the other actors -- as Kym, a recovering drug addict who returns home to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Kym, who still feels guilty for a past tragedy, is a complete mess: Paradoxically, she’s upset when she feels all eyes are on her -- as if everyone’s monitoring her to make sure she doesn’t do anything destructive -- and equally angered when she feels all eyes aren’t on her -- as if her problems shouldn’t always automatically make her the center of attention. Naturally, Rachel feels resentment while other family members, including the well-meaning dad (Bill Irwin, excellent) and his icy ex-wife (Debra Winger), are at a loss for how to handle Kym and her frequent outbursts. Because the characters created by writer Jenny Lumet (Sidney’s daughter) are nothing but brittle and bitchy at the start, it takes some time to warm up to these people and their plights (it’s impossible, however, to ever warm up to the film’s handheld camera technique, which is so 1990s). But Lumet and director Jonathan Demme ask us to respect their characters’ space, and this leisurely approach allows us to more fully appre ciate and understand the situations at hand. By the end, we’re happy to have been invited.
Casino Royale, the 2006 revamp of the hallowed 007 film franchise, turned out to be the best Bond outing since Reagan’s first term in office, so expecting Quantum of Solace to surpass it was probably asking too much. And indeed, this second effort starring Daniel Craig as the newly minted agent with a licence (preferred Brit spelling intentional) to kill gets off to a rough start, simply because the two elements we can always rely on -- the opening credits and the theme song -- are particularly dreadful. The animated graphics are a real eyesore, while “Another Way to Die,” sung by Jack White and Alicia Keys, will doubtless lead to bleeding ears in Dolby-enhanced theaters across the globe. Fortunately, it isn’t long before we’re again immersed in the Bond mystique. Half gentleman, half bruiser, Craig’s Bond is still learning the ropes of his new status as a field operative, and it’s up to his superior, M (again played by Judi Dench with the right mix of exasperation at the monster she helped create and barely concealed pride at the confident, competent male she’s released to the world), to try -- usually with little success -- to keep him in line. In a first for the 46-year-old series, Quantum of Solace isn’t loosely connected to past pictures but is instead a direct sequel to its predecessor: To watch it without having seen Casino Royale would be akin to viewing The Empire Strikes Back without having seen Star Wars. The villainous organization in the previous picture is still full speed ahead, and revenge for the death of a loved one remains foremost on the mind of our hero. M is worried that this will cloud Bond’s judgment, but 007 is nothing if not effective at multitasking. And does he have his hands full, whether tangling with the dastardly Dominic Greene (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Mathieu Amalric), forming a partnership with the lovely Camille (Olga Kurylenko, certainly a letdown after Eva Green’s brainy, biting Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale), or seeking help from coolly distant allies Felix Leiter and Mathis (returning co-stars Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini). With conservation on everyone’s mind, it’s a clever touch to make the chief baddie, Dominic “Greene,” the head of an organization that’s supposedly supporting a healthy environment but is instead a front for its creator’s own avarice. And while the CIA has offered Bond a helping hand on several occasions in past pictures, the outfit here is hellbent on stopping him, since American interests are better served by sucking up to a corrupt billionaire promising to line pockets rather than aiding a conscientious British agent who can offer no such shady dealings. But don’t think for a moment that real-world issues dominate the movie. The stunts are as outlandish as ever, and the typically lavish settings allow us to live vicariously through Agent 007 (in a Bond film, it’s always a toss-up as to whether the women or the locales are more seductive). And fans of the Connery/Moore eras will spot a few neat touches: Gemma Arterton’s MI6 employee is named Strawberry Fields, conjuring up memories of such cheeky past monikers as Honey Ryder and Plenty O’Toole, while one macabre sight is vintage Goldfinger. Continually getting better as it charges along, Quantum of Solace turns out to be a successful second entry in the Craig/007 canon. If I rated with numbers instead of stars, it would merit -- dare I type it? -- a 007 out of 10.