Movie Review: “Penguins of Madagascar”

Starring
Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, Christopher Knights, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich
Directors
Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith

And so it’s come to this: spinoffs.

To be fair, “Penguins of Madagascar” makes perfect business sense on a number of levels. The penguins have been a TV staple for six years, so giving them a full-length feature has zero risk and a built-in audience. As an added bonus, launching a spinoff buys time for DreamWorks to plan the next “Madagascar” movie (currently scheduled for 2018). The tail is clearly wagging the dog here, for better and for worse. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s a shallow one. It’s also strange to get an origin story, and a hollow one at that, for characters we’ve known for almost 10 years.

The movie begins with Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller) and Rico (Conrad Vernon), as young penguins, daring to go against the conformist penguins and battling leopard seals in order to save a runaway, unhatched penguin egg, which would ultimately be Private (Christopher Knights). From that day forward, the four vowed to go against the grain and live for adventure. One day, they are captured by Dr. Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), who’s actually an octopus in disguise that is fed up with the overall cuteness of penguins, and plans to ruin them for all mankind. Enter the North Wind, a government agency assigned to protect animals in danger. Their leader is a wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose name is classified. Skipper does not like having to answer to Classified, but as penguins begin disappearing around the world, the two must find a way to coexist and catch Brine.

“Penguins of Madagascar” has a fantastic running joke that, frankly, I’m surprised no one has done before. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it is, because spoilers. It’s the best thing about the movie, though, and for that alone, you don’t want this to be spoiled by a film critic.

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Movie Review: “The Fifth Estate”

Starring
Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci
Director
Bill Condon

One would think that the group that turned modern-day journalism on its ear would have a much more interesting story to tell, or at least a more original story, than the one that drives “The Fifth Estate.” As it is, we have the age-old morality play about the man who sets out to bring justice to the oppressed but is ultimately undone by his own ego, played out by people on laptops. (Hollywood has tried again and again to make hacking look sexy. It’s not.) This is not to say that “The Fifth Estate” is dull, because it’s teeming with interesting bits and the possibilities for more. The problem is the execution, both from a story structure standpoint and a directorial standpoint. You will be hard pressed to find a movie this year as overly directed as this one.

IT guru Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) meets Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) at a tech conference. Assange has created a site that guarantees anonymity for whistle blowers with the intent of bringing large-scale wrongdoers to justice, and he recruits Daniel to help him get the message out. Their site WikiLeaks quickly finds an audience, but Assange grows resentful of Berg getting an ounce of credit for the site’s success, while Berg’s girlfriend grows resentful of her widow status as Assange calls on Berg at all hours of the day and night. Things come to a head when Assange plans on releasing a bunch of top secret US government files without redacting the names of informants in the field. Assange views redaction as bias. Berg views it as responsible journalism.

One question repeatedly sprang to mind while watching this movie: where did the money come from? We see multiple shots of Assange and Berg globetrotting for what seems like years before the subject of donations to WikiLeaks is even mentioned, meanwhile neither has a day job and Assange and Berg talk of how strapped for cash they are to increase their server space once they realize that demand is greater than their bandwidth can supply. If they’re both so broke, how were they able to travel the world seemingly at will?

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Movie Review: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

Starring
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin
Director
J.J. Abrams

To look back on the controversy circling around J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise is like trying to remember a distant dream: you vaguely recall that the fans of the long-running sci-fi franchise were freaking out about the idea of new actors slipping on the uniforms of James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but so many Trekkies came to embrace Abrams’ “Star Trek” so quickly that it’s almost like the controversy never happened. Y’know, like pretty much everything that ever happened in the original “Star Trek” series and movies. Or have you forgotten how Nero (Eric Bana), the villain in the 2009 film, went back in time on a mission of vengeance and proceeded to change the course of history?

Of course you haven’t forgotten. And you can be damned sure the Trekkies haven’t, either. Ever since Abrams’ film effectively wiped the slate clean on “Trek” history, theories have been flying by at warp speed about whether the next film would find Kirk and company on an all-new voyage or if the storyline might feature new takes on more classic characters. The answer? A little from Column A and a little from Column B. Thing is, we can’t really tell you much about the bits from Column B. Or, rather, we could, but we don’t want to spoil the fun…even if at least one of those fun bits has been bandied about as a plot possibility for the sequel from the very beginning.

Like its predecessor, “Star Trek Into Darkness” more or less starts off at full throttle, with the crew of the Enterprise in the midst of a mission to a strange new world which hasn’t yet reached the level of technology as the worlds within the United Federation of Planets, putting it under protection of the so-called Prime Directive. If you’re unfamiliar with the “Trek” mythos, this basically means that the planet is supposed to be left alone to develop at its own pace, but even if you barely know “Trek” at all, you still probably know that Kirk’s never been a big fan of following the rules, and as a comparative youngster in Starfleet, he’s still learning that there are significant consequences when the rules are broken. What he’s also learning is that not every officer is cut from the same cloth as Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood); some tend toward the hard-ass method of command, like Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller).

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The Light from the TV Shows: 12 Shows to Look Forward to in 2012

Just as 2011 is sure to end in a few days, 2012 is equally likely to follow on its heels, which means that the January TCA tour is right around the corner. As such, yours truly is about to be bombarded with the best and worst that the midseason has to offer…and, fortunately, there’s a lot more of the former than the latter. Indeed, there are a couple of shows that the broadcast networks have been unjustly sitting on for almost six months, even though they’re a damned sight better than most of the dreck we got back in September. (Stand up, please, “The Playboy Club.” Or, you know, pick the program of your choice. That one’s just easiest ’cause it was the first to go.) Much as last week found me offering up 11 shows, give or take, that I was sorry to bid adieu to in 2011, this week I’ve pulled together a list of 12 shows that I’m looking forward to checking out in 2012. Keep in mind, however, that I’m basing my excitement either on a rough cut of a pilot or, in some cases, merely on the hopefulness I get when I read about the show. Yes, this does often come back to bite me in the ass, but such is the life of a TV critic. If I’m wrong, I’ll roll with the punches. In the meantime, though, these are my personal picks for what’s looking good in the new year…

The Firm (NBC)

So sayeth the network: Based on the best-selling novel by world-renowned author John Grisham, “The Firm” is a new drama series that continues the story of attorney Mitchell McDeere (Josh Lucas), who, as a young associate 10 years earlier, had brought down the prestigious Memphis law firm of Bendini, Lambert & Locke, which had been operating as a front for the Chicago mob. After a difficult decade, which included a stay in the Federal Witness Protection Program, McDeere and his family now emerge from isolation to reclaim their lives and their future — only to find that past dangers are still lurking and new threats are everywhere. Abby McDeere (Molly Parker), Mitch’s supportive, smart and resourceful wife, who had helped her husband expose Bendini, Lambert & Locke, is excited to start a new life in Washington, D.C., as a school teacher and mom to their daughter, Claire (Natasha Calis). Ray McDeere (Callum Keith Rennie) is Mitch’s charming, yet volatile, older brother whose work as an investigator in Mitch’s office is uniquely informed by his past stretch in prison for manslaughter. Despite a gritty past that stands in stark contrast to that of his Harvard-grad brother, Ray shares one key quality with Mitch – a loyalty that is unbreakable. Tammy Hemphill (Juliette Lewis) is Mitch’s feisty, sexy receptionist whose work life is made all the more tumultuous by her on-again, off-again relationship with Ray. With a personality as arresting as her ever-changing hair color, Tammy is leery when Mitch accepts a deal to partner with a top law practice, as she’s not cut out for the conservative culture of a white-shoe firm.

My take: I literally only just got the pilot episode this morning, so I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, but the combination of Lucas, Parker, and Lewis has me very intrigued, and the fact that Grisham himself is part of the mix makes me hopeful about the possibilities of where this series could go if it’s given the chance. That’s a big “if,” though, because this isn’t the first time a Grisham novel has made the jump to the small screen. Anyone remember “The Client,” with JoBeth Williams and John Heard? It’s become so obscure that there’s neither a Wikipedia page for it nor even a clip from it on YouTube. Let’s hope “The Firm” gets a better go of it than that.

(Premiere date: January 8, 9 PM; regular 10 PM timeslot begins January 12)

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