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The Shelf: PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR, TOP FIVE, EXODUS

The Shelf: PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR, TOP FIVE, EXODUS

Bit of a weird mixture, a hodgepodge, a melange, a grab bag of releases this week. Movies and TV shows with no discernible connecting features, save release date. We’ve got some family fare, some things that are decidedly NOT family fare, some complete series, and that’s it. So really not very much all told.

Penguins of Madagascar
While the Madagascar films have always been popular, the standout characters (which is true for a lot of these kinds of movies) are the comedy sidepieces who run around on their own adventure, almost unrelated to the main action–the Penguins! These four military-minded yahoos are somehow an elite mission-completing unit and also the biggest buffoons in the zoo/the world. Much like the upcoming Minions movie, the Penguins proved popular enough to warrant their own TV series (due largely to the voices being done by crew people and not big-name stars) and got launched into their own movie, which takes place immediately following the events of Madagascar 3, which I guess had something to do with the circus. That seems to be the only minor connection to those movies, though, which is a good or bad thing, depending on your way of thinking.

The movie begins with a very funny backstory/flashback where we see Werner Herzog (yes, him) doing a nature documentary about penguins. After a little push, the baby versions of Skipper, Kowalski, and Rico get separated from their flock (is it flock when it’s penguins?) in order to save a small, discarded egg, which ends up being that of Private, who becomes the fourth of the group. Private is always treated like the baby, which is part of the story at hand. We then go to the future where the four stumble their way into a plot to destroy all the cute things in the world by Dr. Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), the pseudonym of an octopus in a human suit whose real name is Dave. This lets them cross paths with a secret organization of highly skilled and highly funded agents from the Arctic who are called The North Wind, led by the dashing and arrogant wolf whose name is Classified (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who can’t pronounce the word “penguin”).

While there are certainly some very funny bits in it, it wasn’t as uproariously hilarious as it could be, nor was it as poignant as it wants to be, nor as adventurous as it ought to be. So it’s pretty good, but not great. It’d make good afternoon viewing on a Sunday.

Top Five
People really raved and raved about this movie, due in no small part to its writer-director-producer-star Chris Rock did a very effective and fantastic media blitz wherein he went on shows and wrote essays for prominent magazines talking about how movies don’t cater to people of color (which is certainly true) and about the nature of comedy in general. These were great and showcased the thoughtful comedian’s strengths, so it was with optimism that I went to see the movie. Unfortunately, the movie did little to replicate all of these strengths and it became mainly a mishmash of ideas and themes and points of view.

Rock plays Andre Allen, a so-thinly-veiled-there-may-as-well-be-no-veil version of himself, a comedian turned actor who now mostly makes silly movies where he does voices for bears who are cops. He wants to change the public perception by doing a serious movie, for which he is clearly not suited. He is also about to marry a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) whose whole life, including the wedding, is on camera. Allen has agreed to be interviewed by a reporter (Rosario Dawson) from a prestigious magazine and she follows him around all day as he goes to various appearances, through his own stomping grounds, learning and remembering along the way.

There are tons of ideas within this movie, but none of them really get explored properly. Sometimes it’s a raucous comedy, as when Rock’s character recounts a wild night on the road; sometimes it’s a skewering of the nature of fame; other times it’s about finding what truly makes you happy; still others are like every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen. It just doesn’t hang together well at all, and chiefly problematic, it wasn’t very funny. I could never tell if it was supposed to be a comedic drama or a comedy with dramatic elements, or just a comedy, and the plot goes in places that never really match up with what’s come before or after. It’s kind of a mess, which is a shame given how clearly smart, opinionated, and talented Rock proved himself to be time and again.

Exodus: Gods and Kings
There are very few people making historical epics anymore, and Ridley Scott seems to be the one most likely to keep doing it. Gladiator is obviously the most celebrated of these, but he’s made others that are, if nothing else, sweeping and full of grandeur if not necessarily the most engaging in story. His 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven about the Crusades was plagued by lots and lots of cuts and the later-released director’s cut, which is much longer, was hailed as something of a forgotten masterpiece. I fear that his newest film Exodus: Gods and Kings has fallen victim to the same kind of truncating. Given how big Scott is on director’s cuts, maybe the studios ought to just let him release those movies. A thought.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is certainly an ambitious film, attempting to cover much of the incredibly lengthy book from the Old Testament about Moses, a Prince of Egypt who is banished when it’s discovered he is actually a Hebrew, the people the Egyptians use as slave labor, all the way through to the creation of The Ten Commandments. (Incidentally, both The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt are much better movies.) Naturally, something like that is going to take up a lot of time, and it was initially reported that the film was well over 3 hours. However, it’s been cut down to a manageable but brisk 2.5 hours and, as a result, it feels a lot of the time like we’re watching an edited highlights reel of a movie, forsaking character moments for the sake of plot and action.

To read my full review of Exodus: Gods & Kings, click here.

ALSO AVAILABLE

Annie – A musical adaptation that works better as a comedy movie than it does as a musical.

Song of the Sea – The Academy Award-nominated animated feature nobody saw.

Mark of the Devil – One of the goriest movies of the ’70s, finally released uncut for the first time in the UK and the US.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God – Werner Herzog’s first collaboration with Klaus Kinski, still as unsettling as ever.

Maude: The Complete Series – Bea Arthur was on this show about a woman who was independent and self-assured. In the ’70s?! Bbbbbbut that’s impossible!

Star Trek The Original Series: Captain Kirk’s Boldest Moments – A collection of episodes from the ’60s that feature William Shatner at his best. Includes “City on the Edge of Forever,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” and “The Doomsday Machine.”

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