MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA * * *
Cert PG 89 mins
If only for the fact, as party animal lemur King Julien, Sacha Baron Cohen is channelling Robin Williams rather than Peter Sellers, this Dreamworks animated sequel is more fun than the original. On the other hand, there’s even more borrowing from The Lion King.
The penguins having jury-rigged a crashed plane, they, the monkeys, Julian, sidekick Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer), dancing lion Alex (Ben Stiller), motormouth zebra Marty (Chris Rock), sassy hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and neurotic giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) are planning to fly back to Manhattan.
They only make it as far as the African mainland where, crash-landing on an wildlife preserve, Alex is reunited with parents (Sherri Shepherd, Bernie Mac) he lost when captured.
They’re ecstatic; less so is Makunga (Alec Baldwin), dad’s scheming rival, who, exploiting Alex’s naiveté, contrives to get him banished from the pride, taking over as king from the humiliated Zuba. Meanwhile, as the penguins hijack tourist jeeps to repair the plane, the others are having crises too.
Marty’s got identity issues after discovering all zebras look, act and talk like him while, secretly in love with Gloria, Melman’s depressed to find her flirting with heavyweight hippo Moto Moto (will.i.am).
When the watering hole dries up, Alex sets out to prove his lionhood by fixing things unaware that Melman’s volunteered to become the sacrifice Julien says the volcano gods require.
While never reaching Pixar heights, the film ties its plot strands together into an entertaining whole and, riffing on the main cast’s own personalities, has sufficiently amusing gags to keep kids and grown-ups happy.
The character designs remain boxy, but it looks a lot better than the first, though you’ll appreciate the detail and beautifully rendered landscapes far more on the Imax. Oh, and yes, the penguins steal every scene.
THE CHILDREN * * *
Cert 15 84 mins
In the tradition of Village of the Damned, Children of The Corn and The Bad Seed, Tom Shankland’s follow up to Waz features four youngsters who, during a family New Year gathering at a sprawling country estate, turn on their respective parents (Eva Birthistle, Stephen Campbell-Moore, Rachel Shelley, Jeremy Sheffield) and moody teenage stepsister (Hannah Tointon), contriving to bring them to grisly ends.
That the transformation from little angels to murderous devils appears to be viral and might seem a moral cop out. However, veining horror with sociological fable, Shankland hints their actions mirror the dysfunctional adults who can barely
conceal simmering aggression, rivalries, vindictiveness, and emotional and physical violence.
Manifesting recognisable family life frictions and inherent toddler mischief and malevolence, Shankland’s measured direction and screenplay lets the dread build slowly with glowering looks and jarring flashforwards before swiftly cranking up the terror with a visceral power as, Shelley and Campbell-Moore refuse to accept what’s happening and Birthistle and Tointon find themselves faced with nightmarish choices that go against all genetic programming.
Ramping up the atmosphere with creepy visuals, nerve-jangling score and skewed angles, taking time to establish character as well as chill the blood, it’s a genuinely unsettling experience that touches on primal taboos as parents. With a final scene of killer-eyed kids emerging from the woods, it’s every bit as disturbing as Eden Lake.
THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES * * * *
Cert 12A 110 mins
Having established herself as a child star in Uptown Girls, War Of The Worlds and Charlotte’s Web, Dakota Fanning comes of age in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s best-seller
It’s 1964 South Carolina, and barely able to remember her dead mother (but believing she killed her) and told by her abusive father (a striking Paul Bettany) she never loved her, 14-year-old Lily (Fanning) runs away from home with African-American housekeeper Rosalee (Jennifer Hudson) after an incident with three rednecks lands the latter in hospital. They fetch up in a neighbouring small town where a jar of honey bearing the same label as one Lily has among the souvenirs of her mother, leads to the home of beekeeper August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her two sisters, civil rights activist and cellist June (Alicia Keyes) and oversensitive, mentally troubled May (a tremendous Sophie Okonedo).
Here, Rosalee will find her black identity while Lily will experience her first romance, an interracial relationship that, time and place being what they are, will spark inevitable (if unexpected) tragedy. Discovering the connection between her mother and August, Lily will also learn the painful but healing truth about why she was supposedly abandoned.
It’s all very Oprah book club chickflick stuff, but the quality of the writing and the performances ensure the dark, raw edges are never completely smoothed down so that, while sentimental, it earns its tears and movingly life-affirming resolution with emotional honesty.
TRANSPORTER 3 * *
Cert 15 104 mins
A redundant third instalment of the Jason Statham series, the scrappy, ill-thought out plot has Frank Martin press-ganged into driving kidnapped – and really irritating – Ukranian Valentina (freckly Natalya Rudakova) from Marseilles to Odessa. Meanwhile her ruthless abductor (Robert Knepper) puts pressure on her environmental protection agency dad (Jeroen Krabbe) to sign a deal with corrupt corporate types who are shipping toxic waste.
To ensure Frank sticks to the plan, he and the girl have been fitted with explosive bracelets that will detonate if they get too far from the car. Naturally, the couple start off bickering and, after she winningly informs him “I want to feel the sex one more time before I die”, wind up in love. Along the way to a suitably ridiculous climax that has Frank driving his car onto the roof of a moving train, he’ll flash his torso by using shirt and jacket as weapons and there’ll be any number of badly directed, badly edited preposterous action and car chases.
An ever charismatic Statham keeps the cool but hasn’t been given any dialogue worth saying while the film’s just riddled with plot holes and such continuity errors as Frank diving feet first through the car window and it being intact again a couple of scenes later. Directed by one Olivier Megaton, it’s a bomb of similar proportions.
LAKEVIEW TERRACE * *
Cert 15 110 mins
For a while director Neil LaBute’s latest excursion into pressure cooker social interaction promises to make amends for his Wicker Man travesty.
Moving into their first home, the fact LA newlyweds Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington are an interracial couple ticks off their bigot cop neighbour Samuel L Jackson.
Matters aren’t helped when he finds his kids watching them christen their swimming pool. So begins a war of attrition that starts with snide comments and soon escalates into vandalism, vindictiveness and eventual sociopathic machinations.
All of which begins to expose insecurity cracks in the marriage. Jackson’s suitably intimidating, but the more openly hostile he gets, the more ludicrously overheated the plot becomes until, as symbolic brush fires draw closer and the final confrontation looms, he’s all but rolling his eyes and foaming at the mouth.
Clumsily written, a quickly brushed aside motivation for Jackson’s racism sums up the rampant character inconsistency, leaving things to head to a ridiculously contrived and rushed climax that prompts gasps of dismay for all the wrong reasons.
THE EXPRESS * * *
Cert PG 129 mins
It’s a safe bet almost nobody here has ever heard of Ernie Davis, but in 1959 the speedy Syracuse University football team running back became a symbol for the fledgling Civil Rights movement when they travelled to racist West Virginia and Texas to win that year’s championship.
Then, in 1961, he was the first African-American to win the sport’s prestigious Heisman Trophy. Two years later, age 23, he died of leukaemia without ever playing a pro game
Built around solid performances by Rob Brown as Davis and Dennis Quaid as tough but fair (and not entirely prejudice free) coach Ben Schwartzwalder, it’s a predictable inspirational true sports tale that runs the familiar cliches but never overstates its social commentary.
It’s let down by spending too little time with Davis off the field and a surfeit of endings that sap the energy after the Cotton Bowl triumph, but still scores a watchable touchdown.