Friday, June 29, 2012

"TED" Talk: consistently funny, often brilliant

I thought I knew exactly what type of comedy I was about to watch with “Ted,” the debut film from Seth MacFarlane. I had seen all the trailers, from the red-band to the apple exclusives, and nothing indicated that it was going to be anything more than a one-joke film, something to occasionally chuckle at and immediately forget upon exiting the theater. Let’s be honest: “Family Guy” hasn’t been funny for a very long time, and “The Cleveland Show” is a mess. “American Dad” fares better, probably due to Chris McKenna. 
Almost immediately, “Ted” proves that it’s a cut above the rest. My hesitation about it dissipated within seconds, and I ended up loving the entire film. “Ted” is going to surprise a lot of people, and I fully expect it to be a box office success, hanging around in the top ten for quite a while. When people proclaim that a comedy about a talking teddy bear, starring Mark Wahlberg, is superior to the majority of big-budget blockbusters being released this summer, don’t be shocked. Don’t be fooled by the marketing; there’s a lot more going on than a bunch of offensive jokes. At the very core of the film is a big heart, which seems like it should be a given, yet is a key ingredient missing in most films these days. The film opens with a fairy-tale-esque prologue, narrated by the venerable Patrick Stewart (of course). John Bennett is a depressingly lonely boy with no friends; even the Jewish kid getting beaten up wants nothing to do with him. For Christmas, John receives a Teddy Bear, whom he wishes would come to life, which is magically granted. There is much media attention given to this Christmas miracle, but as the years pass, everyone inevitably stops caring. Now 35, John is a slacker, living with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis), and Ted. But at the beginning of their 4th year together, John and Lori’s relationship is on the rocks as a result of John’s refusal to abandon his adolescent tendencies and let go of Ted, a strong enabler of these habits. 

With a plot that bare, one would imagine that the narrative would run out of steam towards the end, as many comedies tend to do (“I Love You, Man” comes to mind). MacFarlane, along with writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, keeps the plot moving as a wicked pace, barely ever pausing to take a breath. The jokes confidently take shots at pretty much every type of human being and attacks even the most touchy topics with an unstoppable irreverance or pause for anyone. Comedy breaks for no one, including Indians, Asians, Homosexuals, Jews, White people, rape, the mentally disabled, the physically handicapped, 9/11, etc., yet they are never vindictive; everything is delivered with good humor. It’s a fine line, and there are only a couple moments when the film teeters precariously on it, but MacFarlane & co. are able to prevent these jokes from being malicious.  Some jokes don’t always work, some are too forced (there are about one or two too many fart jokes), but it bounces back almost immediately with one that works brilliantly. 
All this wouldn’t have been as successful without the presence of Wahlberg and Kunis, presenting a relationship that is somehow believable, thanks in part to the strong chemistry they share. Wahlberg is an actor who is very hit or miss. I’ve come to the conclusion that only a couple directors know how to utilize his acting ability, and now I can add MacFarlane to that short list. It’s no secret that he’s great in comedy, demonstrated in “I Heart Huckabees” and “The Happening” but here he truly shines, hitting every joke perfectly, playing a very sincere character with childlike innocence better than most actors we’ve seen in the past playing this archetype. 
Mila Kunis is an actress that improves in every role, and “Ted” is no exception. There are some touching moments with her character and subtle nuances that elevate the scenes, bringing an unexpected amount of gravitas to the proceedings. She could have easily been presented as the prudish, crass girlfriend, becoming the film’s antagonist, however, the screenplay sides with her character, creating genuine pathos for this woman’s conflict, resulting in the audience rooting for Wahlberg to grow up not only because we like Ted but also because we empathize with Kunis’ Lori. 

In addition to being a great comedy, it features some genuinely exciting action beats, including a car chase, a battle high above ground, and a great one-on-one between Wahlberg and Ted. The double-edged effect is that these action scenes are the result of a sub-plot that feels a tad undercooked. Giovanni Ribisi, continuing his career of playing the most bizarre characters imaginable, is a stalker obsessed with Ted who wants the toy for his own son. There’s funny stuff going on here, and its never boring, but by the end, I couldn’t help but feeling that it didn’t get as much attention as it probably should have.  
There are some great supporting actors, including Patrick Warburton, Matt Walsh, Ralph Garman, and Joel McHale (channeling Will Arnett), and also a handful of cameos, one in particular manages to triumphantly pay off multiple times. The effects on Ted are seamless, making him feel authentic and a true lead character; the attention to detail on the wear and tear of his body are a joy to behold.  It’s also a valid commentary on a generation that refuses to grow up; about knowing when to hold on and when to let go and how this stifles relationships with those around us. “Ted” is brutally honest, touching, consistently funny and oftentimes brilliant. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Boarding Prometheus, Part III

As Prometheus prepares to land in theaters this Friday, let’s take a look at some non-”Alien” franchise science-fiction films that you might be interested in viewing. 

Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Directed by Byron Haskin, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is one of the stronger sci-fi/space exploration films, making a strong attempt to deal realistically with the possibilities of trying to survive on a foreign planet. Given the knowledge we had about Mars at the time of its release, it’s fairly impressive in its execution. Although it’s technically based on the novel, it takes a lot of liberties with the source material (the astronaut is named Christopher “Kit” Draper). Upon crash landing on the planet, Draper realizes his resources are limited and time is of the essence. Not only is there the need for water, food and shelter, but also the need for oxygen; Mars has some oxygen in the air, but not nearly enough to survive (according to the film). 
“Robinson Crusoe on Mars” features only four speaking roles (the screen time barely reaches a length of fifteen minutes) and sections of film are completely void of dialog, although no where near as unbearably intense as 2001. Byron Haskin has previously directed “The War of the Worlds,” and his sharp eye for science fiction is definitely present in “Crusoe.” Partnering up with a chimp, named “Friday” (a nod to the novel), Draper trudges through the Mars landscape, coming across some ominous Martians, whose intentions are initially ambiguous. I won’t spoil what happens next, as knowing less about the film is rewarding upon the initial viewing. 
The Criterion release is overflowing with amazing features, including commentaries, interviews and documentaries, and the Blu-ray looks phenomenal. It’s available on Netflix instant, but it’s worth the $20 purchase on Amazon.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Boarding Prometheus, Part II

As Prometheus prepares to land in theaters this Friday, let’s take a look at some non-”Alien” franchise science-fiction films that you might be interested in viewing. 

Event Horizon
This is basically a poor man’s “The Shining,” but set in space, yet strangely, it somehow works, despite all its flaws. It’s the year 2047. The spaceship “Event Horizon” has emerged under the atmosphere of Neptune after disappearing 7 years prior, all in the name of experiments for LIGHT SPEED! A rescue is hastily dispatched to the returned vessel after a transmission was picked up from the ship, vaguely resembling a human’s cry for help. Once the crew boards the Event Horizon, it becomes evident that there is some sort of supernatural disturbance that threatens their very survival!! BLOOD ORGIES ENSUE!
Saying that this is Paul W.S. Anderson’s best film really isn’t saying much, but there it is. Surprisingly, the film manages to hold up better than I had expected. There are some nice homages to other sci-fi films and it wears its influences on its sleeve. The concept is pretty strong, and under a better director, this could have been one of the most frightening films ever made, no doubt. The first half is filled with intensely unsettling moments, but it all goes to hell (literally) in the second half, where it collapses into a generic action flick. Anderson relies too heavily on lackluster jump scares and a loud soundtrack to compensate for his shortcomings as a filmmaker, compromising the strong atmosphere and gripping tension that he had earned in the beginning. It’s only through luck that “Event Horizon” ends up being as entertaining as it is, warts and all. 
The characters are interesting, albeit rather undercooked. The cast, which includes Sam Neil, Lawrence Fishburne, Sean Pertwee, Jason Isaacs (who gets the best death), Joely Richardson, Kathleen Quinlan, and Richard T. Jones. All of them do a serviceable job with what they were given, elevating the film's quality, proving that a strong cast goes a long way. 
The film has a decent amount of gore, some chilling images, and a god damn blood orgy. That’s right, a Blood Orgy. If that doesn’t sell you on this film, I don’t really want to know you. 
FUN FACT: The first cut of the film had a longer "Visions from Hell" sequence, more blood, and a different, though similar, ending. The test audience didn't like it, so it was re-cut with an alternate ending involving what director Paul W.S. Anderson called "The Burning Man Sequence." The second test audience didn't like that version, and the film was edited again. The final cut is a less-intense hybrid of both test screenings, with significantly less gore. 

Boarding Prometheus

As Prometheus prepares to land in theaters this Friday, let’s take a look at some non-”Alien” franchise science-fiction films that you might be interested in viewing. 

Planet of the Vampires
Mario Bava directed this B-movie classic about astronauts who land on a mysterious planet and encounter many bizarre discoveries -- like corpses that have risen from the grave! Despite the fact that this was made on a shoe-string budget, Bava makes the best of it by creating a genuine sense of mystery and disorientation. If you can get past the atrocious dubbing and some bad performances, you’ll find that this is a fairly eerie film from the 1960’s. Those familiar with Bava’s other films, like “The Evil Eye,” “Black Sabbath,” and, my favorite, “Island of Terror” will know what to expect. Many critics have joked that “Planet of the Vampires” plays out essentially like a Star Trek episode, which actually is an accurate description when you break the film down beat-by-beat; it’s not too far off.  I’ve never heard anyone from the first “Alien” mention this film, but I’m convinced they drew some inspiration from Bava’s space thriller. If you go into the film expecting actual vampires, you’ll be quite disappointed, since it’s more of a virus that is infecting the crew, rendering them more like zombies than blood-suckers.
“Planet of the Vampires” is available on Netflix instant and Amazon Prime. 
FUN FACT: This film had more than 15 titles before it was decided to be “Planet of the Vampires.”