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Column Wed Nov 26 2014

Horrible Bosses 2, The Penguins of Madagascar & Happy Valley

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

Horrible Bosses 2

When Horrible Bosses hit theaters three years ago, it came at a time when original (as in non-sequel) R-rated comedies were going strong, following the likes of Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher. Context doesn't make a comedy funny or not, but it was a good year for adults to laugh. I also seem to recall that the key to Horrible Bosses' humor was not in its silly plot, which was just an excuse to open the floodgates on some fairly funny material from leads Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis as Nick, Dale and Kurt, respectively. But the real enjoyment came from some truly foul behavior from Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston as the titular bosses, as well as Jamie Foxx as a "murder consultant," brought into the picture when the boys decide to kill each other's bosses. The film was loaded with all sorts of wrong, and for the most part, it worked.

Jumping ahead three years, our heroes are now inventors, attempting to kickstart their own business with the help of a gadget outlet store chain, run by the father-and-son team of Bert and Rex Hanson (Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine). Not surprisingly, the seemingly reputable Hansons double-cross the fellas, leaving them and their new start-up company on the verge of ruin. Naturally, the only thing they can think of is become would-be criminals again to get their money back. They concoct a plan to kidnap young Rex and demand a ransom that just happens be the same amount as their bank loan. The film finds excuses (some more legit than others) to bring Foxx, Spacey and Aniston back into the mix, with varying results.

Horrible Bosses 2 was co-written and directed by the comedy creative team of Sean Anders (who also co-wrote and directed That's My Boy and Sex Drive, as well as co-wrote We're the Millers, Hot Tub Time Machine and the recent Dumb and Dumber To) and John Morris. And for the most part, this film captures the spirit of the first one, almost a little too on the nose. But something in the mix isn't quite right.

First and foremost, Bateman, Day and Sudeikis seem even more idiotic than before and spend most of the film talking over each other, burying many jokes in overlapping dialogue. But more significantly, a great deal of their bite is missing. In the first film, they were angry, but here they simply sulk around like they got their feelings hurt. It's easy for a lot of people to identify with having a tyrannical or inappropriate boss, the type the first film showed us; but not as many audience members are going to be able to really identify with the specific financial woes of the team this time around. And even the way in which Waltz's character fools them seems far-fetched to the point where I didn't buy it and didn't care. They don't seem desperate and borderline insane from being treated so poorly in this chapter; they just seem greedy.

The two best performances belong to Pine and the returning Aniston, who seems to have found even more disgusting ways to gross me out and turn me on in part two. She just seems shot out of a vulgarian cannon, and while I rarely equate this level of gross-out with actual humor, there's something so matter-of-fact about her delivery and a determination in her approach that equals laughs. The fact that she sleeps with Bateman, and he immediately falls in love with her provides fuel for one of the film's few successful running jokes.

On the other hand, Pine succeeds simply because he sells a certain variety of spoiled brat mixed with a man whose father will always see him as something of a disappointment. He's effectively playing the role that the three guys played in the first film because he's been pushed over the brink, and is seeking to get back at his father through unconventional means. I won't ruin exactly what happens, but let's just say that his relationship with the three leads changes during the course of the movie.

Sadly, more often than not Horrible Bosses 2 misses the mark. Presumably Nick, Dale and Kurt are collectively smart enough to hold down real jobs at one point and then eventually invent this product that could make them a great deal of money, so why is it necessary that they act like such idiots? What came across as witty, amusing banter in the first film has crossed the line into incoherent, unfunny rambling. It's sadly a classic example fulfilling the bare minimum requirements of a sequel and not bothering to do an iota more to make it better or more clever or just plain wacky in an interesting way. It's a dud of the highest order, with not enough of what's good to make it necessary or entertaining beyond a few forced smiles.

The Penguins of Madagascar

I'll give the makers of the Madagascar spinoff film The Penguins of Madagascar credit: they open their movie with one of the most unexpected and funniest moments I've had in a theater all year. In a film presumably geared toward younger audiences, the film begins with the acknowledgement that there have certainly been more than a couple documentaries made about the adorable flightless bird, including the one being made in this movie, narrated by none other than Werner Herzog in his typical, droll delivery and asking far deeper questions than any penguin doc has a right or reason. (In my heart of hearts, I wanted to hear Herzog repeat his "With 5,000 kilometers ahead of him, [the penguin is] heading towards certain death" line from his own doc Encounters at the End of the World. Alas.)

Instead, the filmmakers decided to go with something a bit more conventional in a film that focuses on the four penguin characters from the Madagascar series — Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Private (Christopher Knights), and Rico (grunted by Conrad Vernon). Penguins gives the original films the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead treatment by showing us just how the penguins came together, how they split off from their flock to engage is their own adventures, and exactly what they were doing behind the scenes during the Madagascar movies when they weren't on screen. It's weirdly complex for a kids movie, but I'll never knock a film for being ambitious — only if the ambition doesn't pay off.

The sneaky penguins are pitted against Dr. Octavius Brine (voiced with just the right amount of crazy by John Malkovich), a villainous octopus who resents being pushed out as the star attraction at several zoos when penguins became all the rage. So he sets out to kidnap a huge number of penguins to do something to them to make them... less adorable. Sweeping in to save the day is a highly trained, fully armed animal fighting force called North Wind, led by a wolf named a Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch) and accompanied by other wintery animals voiced by Ken Jeong, Peter Storemare and Annet Mahendru (as a seductive owl).

Director Eric Darnell (who co-directed all of the Madagascar films as well as Antz) is joined on this film by Simon J. Smith (Bee Movie) to produce a lightweight but action-packed bit of silliness. There's nothing especially interesting about these penguins, especially when placed alongside the North Wind characters. Sure, they have a certain old-school comedy team appeal that certainly makes the childishness go down easier, but in a film meant to spotlight these side characters, we don't really get to know them any better. If you're going to splinter off, let us learn a little more about these supporting players and help us care about them a bit.

I certainly got a kick out of some of the jokes geared toward the older audience members (there are far more than I would have expected), but that's not really enough to carry a movie. I'm not really sure taking the penguins story back to its origins served any real purpose, and it makes me a little fearful of the upcoming Minions movie, which takes a similar approach. But The Penguins of Madagascar has just enough going for it to take the kids to it this weekend without fear of being bored out of your skull. There's a certain level of charm and entertainment value, and I liked the new characters in particular. That might be enough to convince you to go, but it's far from required viewing, even for Madagascar fans.

Happy Valley

One of the most intelligent and intriguing documentary filmmakers working today is Amir Bar-Lev, who applies many of the tools of investigative journalism to subjects that you may not realize would benefit from such a treatment. He's not so much interested in uncovering hereto unfound facts, but he remembers that it's a documentarian's duty to dig deeper, beyond the approved coverage and standard soundbites to find the core and heart of the world surrounding the story. Watch his earlier works The Tillman Story or My Kid Could Paint That and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. And then dive headfirst into his latest, Happy Valley, an absolutely essential doc about the devastating aftermath in around the Penn State campus after the conviction of football coach Jerry Sandusky for multiple counts of child molestation, and firing of longtime head coach Joe Paterno for not doing more when allegations against Sandusky were first brought to his attention in the late 1990s.

While Bar-Lev does get into the case itself, his true focus is the community in the wake of these events. Like many college towns with a winning football team, far too much emphasis was placed on the game, creating an environment where those involved with the game are virtually untouchable. The filmmaker takes a necessary hard look at the practice of hero worship, and if ever there was a coach worthy of such worship, it was Paterno, who stressed academics above football. No one pushed the players to become well-rounded individuals beyond college more than Paterno, but he had a chance to stop Sandusky's actions and he didn't.

A great deal of what happened at Penn State after the conviction and firing was overreaction from all sides. Students rioted; the NCAA stripped Paterno's entire winning record during the years it was known Sandusky had done something inappropriate; the school was fined an enormous amount of money and banned from bowl games for four years (which seems to punish no one but the players, who are blameless in this affair), chastising the school for placing football before all else (this coming from the NCAA, mind you).

But the true power of Happy Valley comes from the more or less full cooperation that the director got from both Paterno's family and the now-grown adopted son of Sandusky, who heard the testimony during the trial and realized that he too had been the victim of this serial pedophile. Most who had lingering doubts about Sandusky's guilt didn't after the son came forward. The film unveils a disturbing trend that seems to rise to the surface whenever an allegation like this comes out, those who have a stake in the outcome tend to side with the person whose innocence most benefits them. Imagine that. This isn't groundbreaking news, but to see it laid out the way it is here makes it all the more clear and damning — that our opinion on someone's guilt or innocence often has little to do with the evidence.

The film documents the rapid and sad stripping of Paterno's name and likeness from Penn State. A much-beloved and -visited statue of him is removed, the record books are changed, the legacy is tarnished, but life goes on. Happy Valley is a solidly balanced look at the events, and by being so, the truly guilty are made to look more so, while the questionably guilty appear even more nebulous. On some levels, the film reveals the Penn State fallout to be both cut and dry at times, foggy at others on some issues. But this film stays fair and gives everyone a voice, and it's a captivating watch about a complicated phenomenon about what happens to a town when the cameras leave and the circus pulls up stakes, leaving the community to pick up the pieces. The film opens Friday in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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