Sunday, July 22, 2012


 3 / 5 

There's no reviewing a movie like Ted -- it doesn't matter if the movie is well or poorly constructed, if the cinematography and the score are any good, if the editing is noteworthy, it just matters if you laugh, and Ted will certainly make you laugh.

It's not as naughty as Seth MacFarlane, the mega-millionaire writer-director-actor who's behind it, probably thinks it is -- because it's got far too sweet a heart to be truly bad or subversive.  Watching Ted is very much like watching a smart, decent kid spout crude language and make fart jokes because he thinks it's endearing.  Well, yeah, in a way it is, when it's the right kid doing it.

So, yes, Seth MacFarlane is able to do things beyond the capabilities or sensibilities of many writers and directors, and he does it gleefully.  Beneath the smut, behind the potty-mouth, there's someone who both likes movies very much (maybe a little too much) and has an optimistic, happy heart.

It's also what makes Ted just a tad exhausting and about 15 minutes too long.  The concept is just a little too -- sorry -- high here: A little boy wishes his teddy bear would come to life and be his friend forever, and it does ... forever.  Eventually, they're both reluctant adults who have kept each other down by staying in each other's lives.  Back in1985, the media got wind of Ted's story, he even did a guest spot on Johnny Carson -- then, pfft.  Now he's just a child star who gets recognized, mostly for his irrelevance.  But Ted and John (Mark Walhberg) swore to be best friends.  What happens now that Ted is an unemployed pot-head and John's beautiful girlfriend (Mila Kunis) really wants her boyfriend to, you know, grow up?

The story of Ted is paper thin, it depends on execution, much like 1980's Airplane!, which it quotes unexpectedly and bizarrely.  Indeed, it works best as a pop-culture pastiche, a live-action version of MacFarlane's Family Guy, stuffed and ready to explode with random asides and jokey non-sequiturs.

There are times when you almost begin to worry that MacFarlane's only cultural reference point is blockbuster movies from the mid-1980s.  Starting from its pitch-perfect, Spielberg-and-Donner-esque opening shots, through to the fascinations John has as a child, all the way up to the climactic car chase and the movie's pivotal falling star, Ted pauses every few minutes to throw in a reference from a 1980s movie or TV show.  It name-checks Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Aliens, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Top Gun, Diff'rent Strokes and of course the Star Wars movies over and over.  And over.  And over.  Enough already, we get it, John and Ted live in a state of suspended animation; but so do the filmmakers, it seems, only theirs have led to nine-figure paydays.

"Ted" is the raucous 1991 comedy that would have been perfect if it actually were released in 1991, when it would have seemed relevant.  Now it's just anachronistic and undeniably charming, a straight-male fulfillment-fantasy about a man who meets a woman who ultimately wants him to remain a teddy-bear-loving, pot-smoking adolescent forever.  On some level, it's disturbing, though oddly Ted seems to recognize this; its makers just find it hard to reconcile that they get a lot of money to remain exactly this way forever with the reality of a real world they just observe but don't really live in.  (John's girlfriend is introduced as an "SVP at a PR agency," but works in a cubicle; John works at a car-rental agency but lives in an apartment filled with lovely things; even the hourly grocery-store cashier can afford designer dresses for a swanky evening out.)

But, that's carping.  What it comes down to is: Is Ted funny?  You bet.  And as lunkheaded as it may be, it presents a world view that says finding someone who loves you is important, and believing in the impossible is good.  It's a little technical marvel that's innocently offensive, surprisingly un-subversive, and a sure-fire source of laughs.

(Note: Unsurprisingly, the MPAA gave Ted an R rating for "crude and sexual content, pervasive language and some drug use." Ted is a generally sunny and happy look at the world and, with parental supervision and perhaps discussion afterward, I'd much rather show this to a kid than have him see more PG-13-rated violence and destruction.)

Viewed July 21, 2012 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"The Amazing Spider-Man"

 3.5 / 5 

Other than trying to breathe new life into an aging "franchise," there was no terribly compelling reason for The Amazing Spider-Man to be be made, and that redundancy is a big liability that the movie struggles heroically to overcome, and does so only fitfully.  Though it's better than The Avengers, it's still not the year's best super-hero movie -- that would be the micro-budgeted Chronicle.

What that small-but-mighty film showed so memorably is that no matter the special-effects budget, what really makes a super-hero movie work is what makes any film work: a strong story, believable characters and an honest heart.  More often than not, The Amazing Spider-Man gets those things right, and it doesn't always feel like a carefully packaged marketing exercise, which, under the circumstances, is pretty high praise.  But, still, haven't we seen this all before?

It sure feels that way.  Rather than following the tradition of James Bond movies and replacing the actor but continuing the story, it's once again all played out -- orphaned high-schooler Peter Parker (now the charming, stammering Andrew Garfield) is sent to live with his aunt and uncle, visits a lab, gets bitten by a mutant spider, gains spider-like super powers, falls in love (this time with Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone), becomes a crime-fighter and protects New York against a crazed mad scientist.

So, as Hollywood and movie audiences have learned, with great budgets comes great familiarity.  It is good news, then, that The Amazing Spider-Man is quite often a lot of fun, and manages to avoid the trap of so many recent super-hero films by taking itself way too seriously.  This movie shares some DNA with the classic Superman: The Movie in its tone and spirit; it knows that there is some inherent silliness in the story, along with some inherent grandeur.

Its very best moments have nothing to do with digital wizardry or the arch-villain or even the web-slinging, but are found in the interaction between the characters.  The love story between Peter and Gwen comes across as a sweet, awkward teen romance (though they are the most impossibly good-looking and well-coiffed kids in the school).  The interaction between Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Peter is particularly touching this time around.  Even the villain, Dr. Curtis Collins, aka The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), feels like a fully fleshed-out character, at least in a comic-book sort of way.

But at more than 2 hours, 15 minutes, The Amazing Spider-Man sometimes feels like it's never going to end, especially during a completely superfluous fight on the high-school campus between Spidey, Gwen and The Lizard.  On the other hand, the climactic duel is a rarity for a modern big-budget action film: there's some real suspense, and the stakes feel higher because the characters have been so well-drawn.

Watching The Amazing Spider-Man is a little like seeing a revival of a classic Broadway musical; you can be captivated and find something new and worthwhile in the staging and performances, you can even really love it -- but that doesn't change the fact that you've seen it all before.

Viewed July 4, 2012 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks