Ted Review

            Seth MacFarlane has always been known (especially through his Family Guy series) for comedy that has inappropriateness set to the max.  This can easily be a turnoff to some (especially when the writing is as inconsistent as Family Guy has been in recent years), but it does bring in a reliable audience.  If you are looking for some new style of comedy from Seth MacFarlane in his debut film, Ted, you are out of luck.  However, with many of the jokes hitting and the creation of one of the more memorable characters of the year, Ted is a complete success.

            Ted follows John (Mark Wahlberg), a man who still hasn’t figured life out.  John must chose between his girlfriend of four years (Mila Kunis) and his foul mouthed, life-like bear, Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane).  Seth MacFarlane (who directed, co-wrote and acts in this film) is most known for his animated tv shows so it seemed like his transition to the world of live-action films would be doomed.  However, MacFarlane proves himself to not only be a capable writer but a really good director.  Almost all of the jokes and visual gags are staged really well (which is shocking considering most of them involved a CGI bear).  In fact the only time the jokes don’t hit is when MacFarlane and his writing crew fall back on fart jokes so it was not a matter of staging that was the problem.

            The biggest surprise about this film (although probably not that big to those who are big fans of MacFarlane’s work) is that the film is really good at incorporating pop-culture into the film.  Some of the easter eggs (which include Indiana Jones posters) may come off as lazy as they easily get the geeks of the crowd into the film, but in many cases MacFarlane and his team incorporate the pop culture references into the plot.  The best of these include a couple of sequences involving Flash Gordon references and a scene that gives a nod to Indiana Jones always going back to retrieve his hat.

            The film is not without its problems though.  Besides the annoying fart jokes there are many other instances where the jokes don’t hit.  The film probably has an 80% success rate with its jokes but when they miss they are in the style of jokes that are directed at the Adam Sandler crowd so they miss really bad.

            The cast of the film is nothing special but they do everything required of them.  Mark Wahlberg is a perfectly casted lead and his presence helps to establish the film as a distinctly Boston film (which is quite the achievement for a comedic film in this style).  Mile Kunis is there for eye candy and nothing more but she plays it as such.  Joel McHale is doing his usual shtick but it still hasn’t grown old.  The only two memorable components of the cast are the cameo appearances and Seth MacFarlane.  The cameos are incorporated well and Seth MacFarlane’s Ted is such a great character.  Visual effects, voice acting and (especially) writing all combine to create an instantly memorable (and almost iconic) character.

            While the film is ultimately a more adult version of last year’s Muppets movie, Ted is still a really good time at the theaters.


Brave Review

            After releasing its first real critical disappointment last year with Cars 2, Pixar did the smart thing and went back to original content.  While Brave isn’t a top tier Pixar film it is a great rebound for the world’s most famous animation studio.  It has the gorgeous animation and memorable characters that we have come to expect of Pixar.  So while the direction isn’t all there, Brave is able to survive on what Pixar films do best.

            Brave follows Merida (voiced by the perfectly casted Kelly Macdonald), the heir to the kingdom’s throne.  Merida considers herself a warrior first and a princess second which comes to conflicts with her mother (who just wants to see her rule as well as she did).  To say anything more would be ruining the miraculous job the film’s publicity team has done in keeping the film’s big surprise intact.  It gives a huge leg up for a film that actually has some surprises that are worth saving.  This is mostly due to a strong script from Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi and Steve Purcell.  The writers made a smart choice in establishing two interesting characters to rest the entire film on so when they get into more challenging aspects of the film (such as trying establish the film’s multiple themes), they can rest the film on the two characters’ shoulders without worrying that any failed components would make it falter.

            That is fortunate because the film is not without its issues.  Upon researching the development of this film you will discover that there was a change in directors in the middle of filming.  That is unfortunately clearly obvious in the final product as the direction is lacking.  The film’s largest problem is that it has trouble finding what kind of film it wants to be.  At times it wants to delve into the mythology of the land in which the film takes place.  At other times it just wants to be a Disney Princess, and in some cases it strives to be something even greater.  However, none of this really meshes together.  The film starts with a tense opening and an establishment of the mythology that makes it seem like a kids version of Game of Thrones.  So it is really out of place when a following scene has a sequence accompanied by a song that is straight out of Mulan.  However, this is not the only problem with the direction.  There are a few missed opportunities that it seems the script actually wanted to tackle.  For instance, it seemed like the script wanted to include a “needle and threading” component to its action packed finale.  This would have been an interesting addition to a female-led film.  However, the film just breezes past in favor of a typical fight scene.

            Despite this, I would still happily go back into the theater for a sequel.  Merida is by far one of Pixar’s best characters.  It’s just a shame that the story couldn’t live up to the quality of the character building because this could have been something great.  Instead you will just have to settle for a solid addition to the Pixar library.


41 Review

            One of the latest editions to HBO’s loaded library of documentaries is 41.  The title refers to our country’s 41st president, George H.W. Bush.  The documentary is a thorough look at the life of our 41st president and really goes in depth into his early childhood and his term as president of the United States.  While this should have provided a wealth of interesting material, many of the stylistic choices of the film get in the way of this being something worthy of a president.

            The documentary is directed by Jeffrey Roth.  He also writes the documentary with writing partner Stephen Beck.  This team has only made one other previous film (documentary The Wonder of It All), and that definitely shows.  Much of the direction feels amateurish (which is against what we have come to expect from HBO’s lineup of documentaries).  The duo also decided to make the whole documentary take place from George H.W. Bush’s perspective.  This would normally be a great idea, but Jeffrey Roth botches the setup.  Roth spends too much time focusing on Bush talking about himself, and when he isn’t focusing on that he poorly edits together a bunch of pictures and videos.  It also doesn’t help that Bush is probably a little too old to take on such a large narrating job.

            However, the film’s few memorable moments come about only because of this stylistic choice.  George H.W. Bush comes across as extremely sincere.  The portions surrounding Bush’s time as our president really benefit from this as it gives us a very intimate insight.  In his own words, Bush comes off as a man who wanted the best for America despite only being one man.  The best moment of the film occurs when Bush is asked about his thoughts on Ross Perot.  It is surprising and makes you understand that despite being a former president he is just a human being like everyone else.

            If the film just looked into Bush’s life as president, this could have been a good documentary.  Unfortunately, it spends way too much time early on talking about his upbringing.  In the hands of a better director it could have been fascinating, but here it comes across as overlong and un-insightful.

            41 is by far one of HBO’s weaker documentary installments.  It never really feels like the definitive film about George H.W. Bush (and borders on amateurish filmmaking).  However, it is not without its moments due to Bush’s frank insight into his own life.


Haywire Review

            I have never been a fan of Steven Soderbergh.  The man clearly is trying to do something different than most directors, and you have to respect that.  However, other than a few exceptions (such as Ocean’s Eleven and Che: Part One) his films have been a bit of a letdown.  After another letdown with Contagion (which was too overstuffed for its own good) it seemed like Haywire was primed for failure.  It is a relief to say that Soderbergh has recaptured the spirit of Ocean’s Eleven and has created what will be one of the best action films of 2012 when all is said and done.

            Haywire follows Mallory Kane (MMA fighter Gina Carano), a special agent who works for a mercenary company.  While on a job in Dublin, a fellow agent attempts to assassinate her and now Mallory must unravel the conspiracy that surrounds her.  Steven Soderbergh directs from a script by Lem Dobbs.  Lem Dobbs doesn’t offer much to the film.  His script isn’t exactly the best at tackling a conspiracy thriller.  The conspiracy itself is very convoluted it makes itself seem like it’s more important than it actually is.  The dialogue or character development doesn’t really snap off the page either.

            Luckily, Soderbergh knows what he is doing.  He brings back the vibrant and fast pace energy that has been missing from his films since Ocean’s Eleven, and it works wonders on the film.  Soderbergh also turns out to be a great director of action.  The fight scenes in this film are unlike anything you have seen in mainstream films.  Soderbergh tries to make them as gritty as possible (allowing his actors to get beat up as much as possible and including an interesting sound mix that makes you really hear the damage that is being caused).

            Soderbergh was also able to rope in a talented and game cast.  Gina Carano gives a shockingly strong performance in the lead role.  She is not a let down with the physicality of the role and is able to handle the non-action components of the character too.  Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, and Michael Angarano compose most of the supporting players in the cast.  The roles that these actors have are nothing more than devices that keep the story moving but each of them makes their roles seem more than it actually is.  The two standouts from the cast though are Ewan McGregor and Channing Tatum.  Ewan McGregor has never given a knockout performance to date, but he makes up for that by being Hollywood’s most reliable actor.  It was nice to see him in a type of role that he normally does not play, and of course he handled it well.  Meanwhile Channing Tatum is somehow keeping pace with co-star Michael Fassbender for most quality performances in a year.  This is the second time this year (the first being 21 Jump Street) where he has stood out (this time playing a special agent with a past history with Mallory Kane). 

            With a loaded cast and some strong direction, Haywirewill be a film to remember from the first half of 2012.


Men in Black III Review

            Men in Black has to be one of the oddest film franchises in recent history.  The first film was based off a Marvel comic book series but came out before the comic book film bubble that we currently find ourselves in.  Despite that it found success and was regarded as a good film (although it’s hardly remembered fifteen years later).  The second film was released to poor reviews in 2002 and for ten years the franchise looked like it was dead for good.  However, production started on a third film without a complete script in place, and now we have been given Men in Black III.  Despite its troubled history, Men in Black III is a solid summer blockbuster.

            Men in Black III follows Agent J (played by Will Smith) as he tries to stop an evil alien (played by Jermaine Clement) from killing Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) in the past.  The film is directed by franchise veteran Barry Sonnenfeld from a script (if you can call it that given its history) by Etan Cohen, David Keopp, Jeff Nathanson and Michael Soccio.  With the script having such a chaotic history its tough to pick out who to give credit to, but the film makes it seem like it was well written for a summer blockbuster.  It tackles what could have been a problematic subject (time travel) and actually uses it in some original and interesting ways.  While not as quippy as the first film in the franchise, this one does enough to draw some laughter and make you remember why you rooted for these heroes in the first place.  However, the majority of the credit for this film has to be given to Barry Sonnenfeld.  Besides some pacing issues in the early portions of the film, Sonnenfeld rarely makes a misstep.  He brings back the visual energy that was missing in the second installment, and handles the many elements of the film (the action, the suspense and the comedy) pretty well without letting any one aspect overpowering the others.

            The film also nails it with the casting.  Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are both solid in their returns (although their performances and their chemistry in the original film are much greater).  Jermaine Clement as the Boris the Animal makes for a fun villain that is just campy enough that he still feels villainous while also being able to work in the lighter tone of the film.  Michael Stuhlbarg perfectly plays the best character in the film, Griffin.  Griffin can see the outcomes of many alternate timelines, and while it seems like a character like that could easily become convoluted, Stuhlbarg and the creative team never let that happen.  Bill Hader and Alice Eve are also great in short roles.  However, it is Josh Brolin who is the star of the film.  He plays a younger version of Agent K, and he gives a dead-on impression of Tommy Lee Jones.

            While certainly not the franchise’s brightest moment, Men in Black III will ultimately be one of the better films of Summer 2012.


Snow White and the Huntsman Review

            It seemed a lot of the pre-release complaints surrounding Snow White and the Huntsman were aimed at the casting of Kristen Stewart as the “fairest of them all”.  While that role did turn out to be a miscasting, people forgot to even worry about the fact that a rookie director was at the helm of the film.  Commercial director Rupert Sanders completely sinks this film.  No matter how many great actors, phenomenal set pieces and gorgeous costumes are in this film, it can’t compensate for Sanders’ lack of talent.

            Snow White and the Huntsman is a darker take on the Snow White tale and mainly focuses on the relationship between Kristen Stewart’s Snow White and Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman.  The script is written by an odd group of writers including newbie Evan Daugherty, The Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock and Drive’s Hossein Amini.  Here is where the problem of the film starts.  The script is pretty lackluster (to the point of near non-existence).  This should be of no surprise considering the most acclaimed of these screenwriters (Hossein Amini) wrote DriveDrive is a good film but it completely succeeded on the direction of Nicolas Winding Refn.  The screenplay was once again near non-existent in that film. 

            If you give a script like this and a budget of $170 million (a moronic decision by Universal from a creative standpoint) to a rookie director you are most likely going to end up with an epic disaster.  Rupert Sanders does not disappoint in that aspect.  Sanders was clearly never taught the word subtlety because there is none of it here.  While a really over-the-top style can work, it only can with style (like early Tim Burton films or Danny Boyle’s films to name a few).  Sanders has no style.  He just throws in imagery for no reason at all.  Never is this more evident than in the film’s climatic battle which displays a bunch of cool images but is paid off with an anti-climatic fight scene. 

            Of course excessive imagery was not enough for Sanders, he had to coach every actor into an overblown performance.  That is a real shame because this is a pretty talented cast.  Charlize Theron has been the main selling point of the film for non-Twihards, and when she is allowed to play “ice-cold” she is brilliant.  However, when Sanders instructs her to start screaming and doing embarrassingly exaggerated antics, even she crumbles over the silliness of it all.  Kristen Stewart never really suffers from Sanders’ direction but as a character that is “fairer” than Charlize Theron, she is severely miscast.  I will say that this is a nice change of direction from most of her previous work, so Stewart’s performance isn’t entirely a waste.  The only other actors in the cast that leave an impression are Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman and the actors who play the dwarves.  Hemsworth continues to prove that he is one of Hollywood’s best action stars and the dwarves are expertly played by a group of top-notch character actors (such as Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones and Ray Winstone). 

            Considering Universal spent so much money on this film, it is odd that they didn’t go after a better director because if it wasn’t for Rupert Sanders this was a film that could have reached its potential.


Prometheus Review

            Prometheus is going to be a very tough film to review.  Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction has major flaws but it is a film that will stay in my mind for a long time.  It raises some very interesting questions, and for the first two acts it handles these questions well.  However, things seem to fall apart in the final fifteen minutes of the film, but that does not erase what came before.

            Much of the hype surrounding Prometheusbefore it was released has been over its connection to the Alien franchise.  No matter how many times Ridley Scott, Damon Lindelof or (for some odd reason) some critics tell you that this film is its own entity, make no mistake that this is a prequel to Alien.  You’ve got your typical Alien film space crew.  You’ve got your android (or should I say androids?).  You’ve got your major gross out moment, and, of course, you’ve got a bunch of explanation of the Alien mythology.  The film itself follows the crew of the Prometheus as they search for mankind’s maker.

            Ridley Scott directs the film from a script by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.  The more Ridley Scott directs films the more it seems that he caught lightning in a bottle with his earlier works.  It’s been a while since Scott has directed something interesting (or even shown proficient skills as a director).  While his direction here is nothing to go crazy over, it is his best work since Gladiator.  He seems at home with the science fiction and horror elements of the film and many of the sequences are very well staged.  His one major problem with the direction is that he lets something else (whether that be studio figureheads or the script or both) guide the film a little too often.  Some portions of the film seem like they have too much in it (for instance a random action scene in the middle of the film that comes about illogically or another scene where the film beats the audience over the head with the reveal of a relationship between two characters) while other portions of the film seem like they are missing something (like when the captain of the ship drops a bunch of exposition while leaving the audience with no idea where he got that information from).

            Besides some poor dialogue and illogical actions from characters, the much-maligned script really isn’t a problem until the last fifteen minutes or so of the film.  Critics have complained about the lack of answers to the questions the film asks.  For the most part, however, the film gives you enough information to make an educated guess at the answers.  However, when the film starts asking “Who created our creators?” and other questions in the last fifteen minutes of the film with no intent of answering those questions, that is a problem.

            Even at its worst the film is grounded by a strong cast.  Noomi Rapace is only doing a repeat of a Sigourney Weaver performance but she does it well.  Charlize Theron continues her streak of playing ice-cold characters with what might be her strongest performance of the last year.  She plays it with enough ambiguity to arise some interesting questions about her character from viewers.  Idris Elba provides a great source of comic relief and all around awesomeness while Guy Pearce is great in a nearly unrecognizable role.  Even the film’s newbie, Logan Marshall-Green, handles himself well.  However, it is Michael Fassbender that steals the film.  The androids have always provided some of the better performances in Alien films, but Fassbender’s performance as David might be the best yet.  The portrayal of David might be one of the most ambitious components in this film (he is pretty much a bipedal version of HAL 9000), and Fassbender nails it.

            Ultimately, Prometheus is an ambitious film that just doesn’t know how to finish.  However, it can still be considered a worthy addition to the Alien franchise.


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