Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Alex, Melman, and Gloria add to the New York subway commuter crowd in ‘Madagascar.’
Voices by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and David Schwimmer. Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. Written by Mark Burton, Billy Frolick, Eric Darnell, and Tom McGrath. Rated PG.

The Longest Yard
Starring Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, and Burt Reynolds. Directed by Peter Segal. Written by Sheldon Turner, based on Tracy Keenan Wynn’s screenplay. Rated PG-13.

Look at Me
Starring Marilou Berry and Jean-Pierre Bacri. Directed by Agnès Jaoui. Written by Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. Rated R.
But Seriously, Folks

Three comedies playing this week bring the laughter, but one is definitely best.


Most movies, and certainly most comedy films, exist to provide us with light entertainment. We have a few chuckles, and then we leave, with a pleasant buzz if we’re lucky. Light entertainment, however, can be serious business. It can be every bit as insightful as heavy drama and a good deal more fun. Of three new comedies playing in Fort Worth this week, two of them fulfill their expectations, but one goes quite a bit further than that.
We’re used to animated films from Hollywood either being great or lousy. Though it’s not crowded, there is a middle ground — Disney’s 2000 flick The Emperor’s New Groove and last year’s Home on the Range are fair examples. These movies don’t aspire to the lofty heights of the Pixar films. They just promise some light entertainment and deliver, without lingering in your mind for too long.
Madagascar falls into this camp. It’s about four animals living a cushy life in the Central Park Zoo until the day Marty the zebra (voiced by Chris Rock) decides he wants to see what life is like outside. When he tries to escape, his friends — a pretty-boy lion named Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), a sensible hippo named Gloria (voiced by Jada Pinkett-Smith), and a hypochondriac giraffe named Melman (voiced by David Schwimmer) — go after him and wreak havoc on New York City in trying to bring him back. They’re all shipped off to a Kenyan nature preserve, but a team of insane penguin stowaways hijack the boat en route and steer it toward Antarctica, and the four mammals are washed overboard, winding up on the shores of a strange island. The movie tackles the story problem that The Lion King blatantly avoided — the other animals are vegetarians, but without the daily supply of the fresh meat that he was used to getting at the zoo, Alex grows increasingly hungry until one night he wakes up licking Marty, which is awkward for many reasons.
That subplot is resolved without too much fuss — most of the film is engaged in good slapstick. The animators have a lot of fun turning the animals loose in the Madagascar jungle and in an impressively drawn Grand Central Station, and they do especially good work putting the giraffe’s body through weird contortions. Adding to the comic business is a colony of lemurs led by a none-too-bright king (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, a.k.a. Ali G). The biggest laugh comes when the penguins reach Antarctica and get their first look at the place. Through it all, the parodies of famous movies fly thick and fast to keep the adults entertained, and while some of them are tired, some of the more obscure ones are pretty good, like the reference to the opening sequence of the National Geographic tv specials. The film ends with a dance number set to the lemur king’s rendition of Reel 2 Reel’s “I Like to Move It, Move It,” and like the great majority of Madagascar, it makes a funny impression without connecting to anything bigger.

Chris Rock also has a part in the remake of The Longest Yard, a film that isn’t as light on its feet as Madagascar. Rock’s casting, though, is nowhere near as odd as that of Adam Sandler as a former NFL quarterback. Yes, you read that right. Given that Sandler is 5’9” and 160 pounds, and that’s probably in his football gear and shoe lifts, you have to wonder whether he was cast because Elijah Wood was unavailable for the role. To make matters worse, he’s surrounded by real-life NFL players (Michael Irvin, Bill Romanowski, Brian Bosworth), pro wrestlers (Goldberg, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Kevin “Big Sexy” Nash), and other huge guys. The discrepancy in size hits you in the face every time you see him crane his neck to talk to someone. It just doesn’t fly.
Too bad, because otherwise Sandler — in the role of NFL MVP-turned-convicted felon Paul “Wrecking” Crewe — does a fair job portraying a screw-up looking for redemption. James Cromwell is the crooked prison warden who strong-arms Crewe into leading a team of inmates to face a team of guards in a pre-season football game. Rock plays Caretaker, Crewe’s ill-fated right-hand man, and Burt Reynolds, who played Paul Crewe in the 1974 original, shows up to play another disgraced former athlete who comes on board to coach the convicts.
The 1974 movie was a male-bonding exercise filled with slapstick that even the dimmest wit in the audience could appreciate, and as such it was pretty good. This new version is even less subtle, and it isn’t bad, but it never quite justifies the remaking of the original. At least Mean Machine, a British remake from only three years ago, changed the sport to soccer. Sandler cedes the lion’s share of the comic business to Rock, not that that’s any great loss. “I used to suck so bad at sports,” Rock says at one point, “they picked me after the white kids.” (I can hear the crowd at Showtime at the Apollo shouting that one down.) For all the similar jokes about the prison’s racial makeup, the only mildly dangerous bit on that topic is in a scene in which the white prison guards use the n-word to try to bait the cons’ African-American running back (rap star Nelly) into a fight. It’s the most daring thing in this movie, and it’s taken directly from the original. What does that say — about Hollywood, about race relations, about us? That’s a subject perhaps for another film page. The Longest Yard is a passable piece of entertainment for the frat-boy crowd, but everybody involved could have spent their time on something more worthwhile.

The opening of Look at Me at AMC Hulen last week took us by surprise, so we didn’t have a chance to review it then. It deserves to be mentioned in this space, because this small and potentially overlooked movie is a full-blown masterpiece. We should expect no less from Agnès Jaoui (pronounced ah-NYEZ zha-WEE), an actress who made a terrific directorial debut four years ago with The Taste of Others and has quickly established herself one of France’s most vibrant filmmakers.
The film stars Marilou Berry as Lolita Cassard, twentysomething, overweight, and searching for direction in life. Her father, Étienne (played by Jaoui’s real-life husband/writing partner/lead actor Jean-Pierre Bacri) is no help at all; he’s a famous and incredibly self-absorbed writer who, to be fair, ignores his gorgeous twentysomething wife (Virginie Desarnauts) as much as he ignores his daughter. Desperate for a role model, Lolita gloms onto Sylvia (played by Jaoui herself), a music teacher who hears her sing Handel and Mozart and encourages her to study professionally.
This setup — along with its faultily translated title (the French title means “like an image”) — makes the movie sound like a female-empowerment tale for the coddled bourgeoisie, but it’s nothing like that. Instead, it’s a quick-witted comedy with characters as subtly drawn as the ones in Sideways. Étienne may be a monster, but nobody’s a saint; Lolita’s prone to pettiness and self-pity, treating a prospective boyfriend (Keine Bouhiza) like crap until he calls her on it. Likewise, Sylvia only takes a real interest in Lolita after finding out who her father is, and she uses their acquaintance to successfully kick-start her husband Pierre’s dormant writing career. When Pierre (Laurent Grévill) ponders whether to change representation in the wake of his newfound fame, both he and Sylvia suddenly start snapping at his agent (Michèle Moretti), finding her personal quirks much more annoying than before.
Jaoui’s film is full of finely tuned observations about human behavior like that one. As in her last movie, she follows her various characters sympathetically through the gently surprising twists that everyday life tends to spring. She’s so good at plot construction and keeping a light tone that you don’t realize how densely packed the movie is until it’s over. And she generates some extremely funny situations, none better than the one that finds Pierre making an appearance on a tv talk show that isn’t quite as intellectual as he bargained for. Through it all, Lolita’s gradual progress toward self-discovery drives the story, and her concert in a countryside church with all the major characters in attendance serves as a tremendously effective climax. Everyone’s situation is changed, but their selves are revealed as pretty much what they seem to be. Between this film, Kung Fu Hustle, and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, the AMC Hulen is the place to be this week for great movies.

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