Chronically Metropolitan


Writing and hangovers go hand in hand.

(2016) Dramedy (Paladin) Shiloh Fernandez, Ashley Benson, Addison Timlin, Josh Peck, Chris Noth, Mary-Louise Parker, Chris Lowell, Sosie Bacon, Nasser Faris, Norm Golden, Rhys Coiro, Max Curnin, Craig Newman, Luca Surguladze, Whitney Vance, Al Thompson, Victor Cruz, Andres Arellano, Antoinette Kalaj, Alex Oliver, Meredith Travers, Ana Valdes. Directed by Xavier Manrique

 

Writers are an odd lot. We have wonderful powers of observation, very often able to discern truths about those we observe that they might not expect. We are also self-centered; writing is by its nature a solitary endeavor. All of us, every one, is ruled by the tyranny of the blank page.

Fenton (Fernandez) is the son of one such writer and professor who has been a leading light in the New York City literary world and a fixture on the Upper East Side. When Fenton’s dad (Noth) is involved in a car accident in which drugs and extramarital sex played a role, his whole family is put under an enormous microscope – the accident winds up front page material in the New York Post (“They never paid this much attention when I won my National Book Award” he grouses).

Fenton had been living in San Francisco the past year. A talented writer in his own right, he had gotten a story published in The New Yorker which his then-girlfriend Jessie (Benson) had assumed was about her and her family. It led to a nasty break-up and to Fenton’s exile, as he puts it. Now he’s back, trying to mend fences with Jessie who is on the eve of her wedding to Victor (Lowell), an art gallery owner whose family is stupid rich. Fenton’s dad assumes that’s why the nuptials are impending.

Fenton’s mom (Parker) has retreated into a marijuana-scented haze trying to dull the edges of her pain and embarrassment. His sister Layla (Addison Timlin) is basically angry at everybody and carrying on a hidden relationship with Fenton’s best buddy (and mom’s pot supplier) John (Peck). Fenton has a deal for a novel based on the success of his New Yorker story but when he sits down to write it that blank page stares back at him accusingly. He hasn’t been able to move on from all the upheaval and with his parents essentially on the verge of divorce, he is getting overwhelmed and acting out. Can he put his life back together under the microscope of New York literary society?

This is the kind of movie that plays to the prejudices of non-New Yorkers, characterizing them as pretentious self-centered spoiled rich pricks. Everyone in the movie and I do mean everyone has some sort of neuroses going on. As for actual New Yorkers, this is the kind of movie that sets their teeth on edge. Certainly there are people who behave this way – those prejudices had to start from somewhere – but it isn’t really true to life anymore.

For one thing, a story in the New Yorker isn’t going to have the catastrophic effect on families that it once did. In this day and age of social media, a family’s skeletons are likely to be aired on Facebook long before the dirty laundry is made into a short story or a novel. Regards to the New Yorker, a publication that is worthy of respect but while it continues to carry a lot of clout, I don’t think that it can cause that kind of personal chaos any longer. At least, that’s what I hear.

This feels like a movie cobbled together from a lot of different movies; Fenton wanting to stop the wedding of an ex-girlfriend, a family at each other’s throats due to a work of fiction that is thinly veiled autobiography, a philandering father who is a writer, a mother who is self-medicating, an angry sibling – I could go on but why bother? This is all fairly safe, fairly familiar territory and most of you who have watched more than a few indie films set in Manhattan are going to recognize it.

Noth channels Rip Torn here and does a fairly stellar job in a role of an utter S.O.B. which Torn used to essentially own. Noth, who generally plays nice guys, does an admirable job here. Parker, a terrific actress who doesn’t get nearly as much credit as she deserves, is wasted in a generic role. In fact, most of the women here have very little depth to their parts. This is certainly a case where the script could have used a woman’s touch.

Cinematographer Scott Miller does a bang-up job of using the city as a character; one gets the sense of the ebb and flow of New York. Despite the shallowness of most of the characters, one senses a genuine love for the city from all of the filmmakers. That does go a long way.

Sadly this is far too generic and far too cliché to really attract much notice. There are some good ideas here but for the most part the writing takes safe, established routes rather than blazing new trails. There’s nothing here that seems to have much of a voice – and that’s essential to a film like this. It’s okay as far as it goes, but I would have liked a lot more than okay.

REASONS TO GO: The film is skillfully shot and features New York City nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Indie clichés abound here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of drug and alcohol use and some sex and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Parker, whose character here has developed a marijuana habit, also played a pot smoker in the TV series Weeds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Landline

The Book of Love


Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen's hair.

Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen’s hair.

(2016) Dramedy (Freestyle/Electric) Jason Sudeikis, Maisie Williams, Mary Steenburgen, Jessica Biel, Paul Reiser, Orlando Jones, Bryan Batt, Jason Warner Smith, Cailey Fleming, Richard Robichaux, Jon Arthur, Russ Russo, Christopher Gehrman, Natalie Mejer, Madeleine Woolner, Alicia Davis Johnson, George Wilson, Ian Belgard, Parker Hankins, Sheldon Frett, Damekia Dowl. Directed by Bill Purple

 

As our journey through life continues most of the people we meet have little or negligible impact on who we become. However, there are those we encounter who become indelible stamps on our personalities, people who leave not just a mark but a book. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we find more than one of those.

Henry (Sudeikis) is the proverbial mild-mannered architect. A decent enough guy, he goes through life largely ignored and content to be that way. However, his lovely wife Penny (Biel) has enough personality for the both of them. She urges him to “Be Bold” when he leaves for work in the morning and throws out his penny loafers in order to dress him in garish purple running shoes to an important business presentation. Gotta admire her chutzpah, no?

It is sadly the brightest lights that often burn the shortest and a car accident claims the life of Penny and her unborn child. Henry is devastated and his semi-understanding boss (Reiser, who not that long ago could have played guys like Henry with his eyes closed) tells him to take some time. Henry uses that time to befriend a street urchin named Mollie (Williams) whose life ambition is to build a raft to sail out to the Atlantic on an intrepid journey not unlike that of Thor Heyerdahl (a real guy – look him up). Henry realizes that he can build a better raft for her and offers his services and his backyard after he accidentally burns down the work shed she was living in and her abusive uncle (Smith) throws her onto the street.

With the help of Dumbass (Jones) – don’t ask – and the barely comprehensible Pascal (Robichaux) who were in the process of performing renovations on Henry’s house when Penny died, the intrepid quartet actually look like they might pull it off. However Henry’s overbearing mother-in-law (Steenburgen) is on his back about the final disposition of Penny’s remains, his boss is on his back about coming back to work and Millie’s abusive uncle is trying to find her after he finds out he won’t be getting the money that supporting her brought in if he doesn’t bring her back to his house. Not to mention that there are no guarantees the raft will even float.

Much of this film is about loss and letting go. Sudeikis spends most of the movie looking soulful and bereaved and he’s not bad at it. Williams, who plays the plucky Stark sister on Game of Thrones (in other words not Samsa) looks to be a real find, despite her somewhat deplorable Cajun accent.  She is one of those actresses who has a boatload of talent but might not get the parts because she isn’t what you’d call “glamorous.” Hopefully she will nab some parts that will make Hollywood sit up and take notice.

Sudeikis is generally known for his nice guy comic roles but this one is a bit more dramatic for him. He’s also a bit uneven in his performance but shows plenty of potential for tackling roles of this nature. Hopefully he’ll get better dialogue than this when he does.

The characters are a bit cliché here, like the upbeat offbeat leading ladies. I didn’t even know there was a generic critical term for them but there is – Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I saw it used in a couple of reviews now. I guess it’s as accurate as any but it is a bit snarky. Still, the characters – like much of the plot – aren’t terribly realistic. In fact, one of the movie’s big failings is Purple’s penchant for implausible plot points and coincidences and the movies emotional manipulation. Critics just hate hate hate having their emotions manipulated but a good cathartic cry when well-earned is good for the soul. Even a critic’s soul, assuming they have one.

REASONS TO GO: Maisie Williams delivers a strong performance and Jason Sudeikis is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is manipulative (critics are going to hate it) and implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use, a little bit of violence and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Justin Timberlake has written the score for.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Unfinished Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Paterson

Knocked Up


The odd couple.

The odd couple.

(2007) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Martin Starr, Charlyne Yi, Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Joanna Kerns, Harold Ramis, Alan Tudyk, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Ken Jeong, Craig Robinson, Tim Bagley, Loudon Wainwright, Adam Scott, Mo Collins. Directed by Judd Apatow

Cinema of the Heart 2016

What says I love you more than having a baby together? Well, that isn’t always the case – sometimes babies are made of bad choices, accidents of chance and/or alcohol. Or sometimes all of the above. Nonetheless, the baby doesn’t know the difference and getting someone knocked up is only the beginning.

Ben Stone (Rogen) is a Canadian slacker living in L.A. whose idea of entrepreneurship is setting up a website that collates all the nude scenes for every actress in every major Hollywood film. An idea whose time has come? No, it’s an idea whose time has been but don’t tell Ben and his stoner roommates that. Ben is slovenly, jovial and pot-addled but basically a nice guy.

Alison Scott (Heigl) is beautiful, poised and talented; she has just hit a career jackpot by getting an anchor job on a major cable network. She goes out to celebrate but meets up with Ben and somehow the two hit it off and end up in her bedroom. The morning after is awkward but cordial; Alison can’t wait for her over-the-two-drink-minimum mistake to go home while Ben knows he has managed to tap way beyond his league and kind of wants to see where it goes. Alison makes it clear it’s going nowhere.

But that’s not going to happen. In the festivities of carnal relations, Ben rang her bell and she’s pregnant. Although she is advised to get an abortion, Alison doesn’t want to do that. She decides to bring the baby to term and so she tells Ben what’s happening.

 

At first Ben is a little bit terrified, then he throws himself into impending fatherhood with as much enthusiasm as he can muster, which is considerable. Perpetually broke, he leans on Alison for expenses which doesn’t sit too well with her. As they get to know each other, they realize how wrong for each other they truly are but Ben perseveres out of a sense of responsibility.

Alison, who lives with her married sister Debbie (Mann) and Debbie’s affable husband Pete (Rudd) whose own marriage has its ups and downs, is scared of what’s going to happen to her and her baby, and frightened at the prospect of raising a child alone. However, when Ben gets to be too much for her, she realizes she may have to do just that.

This in many ways was Apatow’s break-out movie; sure The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a hit but this was a HIT and kind of set up the Apatow brand which would rule cinematic comedy for the last half of the decade and on into this one. It has a cast that includes some of the funniest people in the business, from SNL to Second City to stand-up stars to TV comedy stars and even a few straight non-comic actors.

What really impresses me about this comedy is that when you separate the laughs, the drug jokes, the dick jokes and the crude humor, there really is some intelligence here. Gender roles are looked at with a fairly unflinching microscope and the way men and women tend to interact also merits examination. So often the sexes tend to talk at cross-purposes, neither understanding the meaning of what we each have to say. Knocked Up finds the humor in the disconnect, but there’s a serious message behind the laughter.

What doesn’t impress is that the movie tends to take the low road at nearly every turn. I don’t mind raunchy humor or low comedy at all but sometimes it feels like the intent here is to shock rather than amuse. How funny is it really to be taking a dump on your roommate’s bed to give them pink eye? That’s when it starts to veer off in little boy humor and that wears damn thin quickly. Also the last third is a tad cliché and the ending more than a tad pat.

Thankfully, there are some major talents in the cast and for the most part the players take their roles seriously and give some pretty decent performances. For Rogen and Heigl, this established them as legitimate movie stars and launched their careers, while Rudd, Hader, Segel, Hill and Mann also garnered plenty of notice on the way to making their careers much more viable. It’s hard to imagine what the modern comedy landscape circa 2016 would look like without Apatow’s films.

This is in many ways a landmark film and in many ways it is an ordinary film. There are those who say it is too raunchy to be romantic, but what is romance without a little raunch? There is actually a surprising amount of true romance here, more so than in other films that are much more serious about the romance in their comedy. This may occasionally go into the gutter for its humor, but it is a much smarter film than most give it credit for.

WHY RENT THIS: Takes a surprisingly mature look at sexual expectations and gender roles. Fine performances by a standout cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overdoes the raunch. Runs a smidgen too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of drug use, some sexuality and quite a bit of foul language and innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally footage from a live birth was going to be used, but that plan was scrapped when it turned out a work permit would have to be obtained for the unborn child.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The traditional Apatow extra Line-o-Rama is here, as well as a gag reel. There is also outtake footage of the children on the set, as well as scenes of Rogen that he did for some inexplicable reason without a shirt. The Blu-Ray has additional comic features including a fake casting doc on the part of Ben Stone, as well as the “sixth” roommate who decided to bail on this movie to do the latest Woody Allen film. Not exactly priceless, but certainly different than what you usually find on the average home video release. Also please note that this is available in most places in both the theatrical version and uncut version.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $219.1M on a $30M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon (unrated), iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is 40
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Synchronicity

Children of Men


Clive Owen isn't a swinger anymore.

Clive Owen isn’t a swinger anymore.

(2006) Science Fiction (Universal) Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston, Charlie Hunnam, Maria McErlane, Michael Haughey, Paul Sharma, Philippa Urquhart, Tehmina Sunny, Michael Klesic, Martina Messing, Peter Mullan, Pam Ferris, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Gary Hoptrough, Maurice Lee, Dhafer L’Abidine, Bruno Ouvard, Denise Mack, Jacek Koman, Joy Richardson. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

]If the world is indeed going to hell in a handbasket, it follows that it will end with a whimper rather than a bang. Worse than everything ending in a moment is the thought that humanity will die a slow, lingering death.

In 2027, that seems to be the case. It has been 19 years since a human baby has been born and the world teeters on the edge of anarchy and chaos. Only England has a functioning government and it is barely holding on with its fingernails, resorting to a brutal totalitarian government that has banned any immigrants from entering the country, a chilling thought that resonates even more in 2015 than it did when this was made.

Theo (Owen) works at the Ministry of Energy in a London that is beset by terrorist attacks and open revolt. Immigrants are captured by draconian police, put in cages and forcibly deported. Plagues and famine have made things even worse. One morning he barely escapes a bombing in a cafe that shakes him to the core. He is then kidnapped by the Fishes, a radical Immigrant’s rights group that is led by Julian (Moore), Theo’s ex-wife from whom he separated when their child died 20 years previously.

She offers him a large sum of money to use his connections to get transit papers for Kee (Ashitey), a refugee. He obtains these from his cousin Nigel (Huston) but the papers require someone to accompany her, so Theo is paid to do this. Accompanied by Kee, Julian and her right hand man Luke (Ejiofor), they head for the coast but are attacked. In the chaos, Theo gets Kee to the home of his old friend Jasper (Caine), a former political cartoonist living out his days in isolation, caring for his wife who was left catatonic by government torture.

Pursued by both terrorist forces and the government, Theo and Kee must make their way to the coast and meet a ship from a group of scientists calling themselves the Human Project who would take Kee to safety. Getting there, they must run a gauntlet of hatred as armed conflict breaks out between the government and the refugees with Kee and Theo both caught in the crossfire. Kee however carries a secret that may mean the revival of hope, something that has been thought completely lost.

While the movie was an unabashed critical success (many ranking it on their ten best lists that year), it only received three Oscar nominations mainly for the technical end. That’s a shame, because Owen gave what is to date the best performance of his career. Far from being a typical action hero, he careens from situation to situation, often frightened by what was happening to him, trying to survive by his wits in a situation that was rapidly disintegrating. It is to be noted that while bullets fly in the movie, Owen never even touches a gun.

Moore, a perennial contender for Oscar gold, showed why she continually is in the mix for Best Actress or Supporting Actress. Julian is a strong leader with an iron will, not above manipulating someone she once cared about for the greater good of her cause. Still, the movie does reveal a softer side to the character and Moore plays both well. Caine gets a meaty role as a hippie-like character who smokes a lot of strawberry-flavored pot and has removed himself from society, yet brims with wisdom. It’s as charming a role as Caine has ever played and he’s played some good ones.

The tone here is almost uniformly grim, although the movie really is about hope. Its absence is what plunged the world into chaos; the merest glimmer that it might reappear leads people to sacrifice everything. The ending is open-ended and leaves the viewers to decide whether the ending is bleak or the opposite; I suppose that how you interpret it will largely depend on whether your outlook tends towards optimism or pessimism.

The production design is one of decay, crumbling buildings and streets of fear. There isn’t a lot of gleaming, futuristic set design here; this is a world that is falling apart and the sets show it. The fact that it looks real and familiar is a testament to the production design team and Cuaron. Also, some of the action sequences here are absolutely scintillating, particular the attack on the car alluded to earlier and a final battle between the government and the rebels. They are realistic and for the most part shot with a single camera, lending even more of a “you are there” feel to the film, which many have described as a documentary of things that have yet to happen. There is definitely that kind of feel here.

This is not a masterpiece in my opinion; the mood can get oppressive and considering the state of the world, it can truly make you question whether humanity is worth saving. But questions like that are important to ask, even if we all agree the answer is “yes” (which most of us, I would hope, do). This is a truly impressive movie that may not necessarily be the sort of thing you’ll want to watch as light entertainment, but it’s one that will give you pause. Movies like this are what make science fiction a compelling genre, particularly when it rises above space battles and monsters. Here, the only monster is ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Smart and chilling. Fine performances by Owen, Moore and Caine. Extraordinary action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too dark and dystopian for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, brief nudity, some drug use and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.D. James, author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as the old woman in the cafe with Theo in the opening scene.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the questions raised by the movie, some of which also appears in the featurette The Possibility of Hope which examines how the current global situation (circa 2007) was leading to the future of Children of Men.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $70.0M on a $76M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Chaperone

Kingdom of Shadows


The price of recreational drug use isn't always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

The price of recreational drug use isn’t always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

(2015) Documentary (Participant) Sister Consuelo Morales, Oscar Hagelseib, Don Henry Ford Jr., Nik Steinberg, Diego Alonso Salazar, Auden Cabello, Leah Ford, Virginia Buenrostro, Luz Maria Duran, Joshua Ford, Dina Hagelseib, Diana Martinez. Directed by Bernardo Ruiz

It is no secret that the drug cartels have turned northern Mexico into a war zone. Violence from the cartels has escalated and in the city of Monterrey, a beautiful municipality that is the center in a war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel which has escalated so that innocent civilians who have no connection with the drug trade whatsoever are disappearing, murdered by one faction or the other which was unheard of just a decade ago.

Director Bernardo Ruiz looks at the problems created by this violence from three distinct viewpoints from three different people; Sister Consuelo Morales is an activist/nun who advocates for the families of those who have disappeared, acting as a liaison between the families and the police who are perceived to be (and actually are) corrupt – in fact, some of the kidnappings are performed by officers of the law, further deepening the mistrust the people of Mexico have for their own government and its institutions.

Don Henry Ford Jr. is a convicted drug smuggler from Belmont, Texas who worked on his own family farm, but deepening debt forced him into a need for quick cash and there are few instances of cash that are quicker than bringing drugs from Mexico to the United States. Although he was eventually caught and served time in prison, he was already disillusioned by what he saw as escalating violence by new players in the game who disregarded the rules and has since left the life to concentrate on his legitimate farm work.

Oscar Hagelseib grew up in Socorro, Texas, the son of illegal immigrants in a neighborhood that was infected by the drug trade. A cousin’s house was used as a stash location for the cartels and those who entered the trade were far more prosperous than those who didn’t. However, as it turned out, Oscar would go into law enforcement, first with the Border Patrol and later with the Homeland Security Agency. Once an undercover agent but now in charge of drug-related offenses in the El Paso office, he is unafraid to show his face in the media, arguing that he was in less danger than would a snitch or someone within the cartels who betrayed the cartels.

All three look at the disappearances primarily – those civilians who one day just aren’t there. More often than not they turn up in narco kitchens – mass graves. These disappearances haven’t been seen in Latin America since the days of Pinochet in Chile and those at the time were done by government military forces. The corruption is so rampant that nearly every candidate for office in Mexico has to include overhauling their local police force as part of their platform, but few ever get around to actually doing it.

The documentary suffers a little bit from a lack of focus; there is no coherent storyline here, more like a series of interviews entwined together. The statistics are sobering and so are the stories being told here, but because there really isn’t any kind of unification between those stories they are wasted somewhat, floating on the wind instead of being given a larger context. That does those stories a disservice, although they do remain powerful.

It is well-known that the cartels in Mexico are outrageously violent, but we don’t see much of the violence here except for some news footage of bodies being cut down from places where they will be seen as an example of what happens to those who cross the cartels, and one family member of a disappeared one recounts tearfully how her daughter had been raped for three days straight before being executed according to an eyewitness, although she prayed it wasn’t true – you can see in her eyes that she knows that it is.

It is in fact the faces that are the most haunting thing. The end of the movie is simply a montage of faces, faces of the victims and the faces of the families. Some can barely hold back the tears; others can barely contain their rage. Some are stoic, others expressive. Some are young, some old, some in-between. That last montage carries more meaning than almost the rest of the documentary put together; those faces connect the viewer to the story in a powerful way. If only the rest of the movie could be more like that. Still, this is the kind of story that the news agencies in the States isn’t likely to tell and when it does, only in a cursory way. This is the world these people live in, a world we are partially responsible for due to our insatiable consumption of illegal narcotics. If we want to win the war on drugs, that’s what we need to concentrate on.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and haunting. Uses news footage effectively.
REASONS TO STAY: Unfocused and lacks flow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and depictions of violence, and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The term “narco kitchen” refers to mass graves in which drug cartels bury those they’ve executed. Prior to burial the bodies are incinerated so that they cannot be positively identified.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cartel Land
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Shameless

Ted 2


Ted and Tammi-Lynn experience some marital bliss.

Ted and Tammi-Lynn experience some marital bliss.

(2015) Comedy (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane (voice), Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman, John Carroll Lynch, Sam J. Jones, Patrick Warburton, Michael Dorn, Bill Smitrovich, John Slattery, Cocoa Brown, Ron Canada, Liam Neeson, Dennis Haysbert, Patrick Stewart (voice), Tom Brady, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Kate MacKinnon. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

When you get a movie that’s as popular as Ted was, a sequel is inevitable. Just because a movie was popular though, doesn’t necessarily mean a sequel is advisable.

Ted (MacFarlane) is marrying his sweetheart Tammi-Lynn (Barth), the two having met at the grocery store where they’re both employed. Performing the ceremony is their hero Sam J. Jones – Flash Gordon himself. Things are looking up for Ted. Celebrating, albeit with more restraint is his best friend and thunder buddy John Bennett (Wahlberg) who is still stinging from a divorce from long-time girl Lori.

Still, John has always been there for Ted and vice versa so he supports his friend all the way and Ted settles into married life. Nobody ever explained to the magically animated teddy bear however that marriage isn’t easy. Ted and Tammi-Lynn begin to fight and it looks like the two might be headed for Divorceville. However, Ted gets the idea from a co-worker that the best way to fix up a broken marriage is to have a baby and at first, it seems that it’s just what the doctor ordered; Tammi-Lynn is ecstatic at the thought of being a mommy.

However, there are some hurdles to overcome. Ted isn’t, how can we put this, anatomically correct so they’ll have to go the artificial insemination route. Of course, Ted wants only the best and after trying to get a few well-known sperm donors (including Patriots quarterback Tom Brady) and failing, Ted “settles” for his buddy John’s…umm, seed.

When it turns out that Tammi-Lynn can’t carry a baby to term, adoption seems the only way left. However, Ted’s attempts to adopt a baby turn back on him unexpectedly when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who have never weighed in on Ted’s legal status in the 30 years or so he’s been around, suddenly now declare that an animated teddy bear does not have the rights that a regular human being has. At least, a straight one (until recently).

Stung that he is now considered property, Ted fights back in the courts, utilizing pretty but inexperienced lawyer Samantha L. Jackson (Seyfried). Unbeknownst to them however, Ted’s nemesis Donny (Ribisi) is plotting with Hasbro’s amoral CEO (Lynch) to get Ted back, dissect him, find out what makes him tick and manufacture millions of animated teddy bears just like him. Can Ted win his freedom and have the life he truly wants?

MacFarlane is something of a renaissance man, being a crooner, an actor, a writer and director, sometimes all at once. He’s really the Quentin Tarantino of comedy, very aware of pop culture and excessively cool about it. While his first movie, Ted, was a huge hit, the follow-up, last year’s A Million Ways to Die in the West was a bomb and surprisingly not very funny. MacFarlane is the kind of comic writer who tends to throw a ton of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Sometimes you can come up with comedy gems that way but you also leave a lot of foul-smelling garbage that didn’t stick at the base of the wall.

Wahlberg is getting a touch long in the tooth to play the immature drunk/stoner in many ways although I suspect that’s part of the joke. He still has the ability to be boyishly charming and pulls it off, although not as well as he did in the first film. In fact, the bond between Ted and John is at the center of what works about the movie.

Most of the rest of the cast is essentially window dressing for the two leads, although Seyfried is game enough to be a lawyer with a taste for good weed as well as the love interest for Wahlberg. Freeman has a brief cameo as a civil rights lawyer and Neeson a briefer one as a suspicious shopper who worries that as an adult eating Trix – which are clearly for kids – he might end up being prosecuted.

While the heart is here, the comedy isn’t. Too much of the comedy doesn’t work and one gets a feel that MacFarlane is more or less going through the motions here. Not being a brilliant writer and pop culture commentator as MacFarlane is (his Family Guy continues to offer fresh commentary on 21st century America), I might be way off here but I don’t get the sense that there really was anywhere for MacFarlane to go with the characters other than to make them more foul-mouthed, more disgusting and more stoned. There’s nothing fun – or funny – about seeing other people get high. This is better seen while seriously baked in the privacy of your own home I’m thinking. I suspect a lot of people who have seen the movie straight will agree with me.

REASONS TO GO: The movie still retains the sweetness of the first.
REASONS TO STAY: Not nearly as funny as the first movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Much of the humor is crude and of a sexual nature. There’s also a whole lot of nasty language and some drug use. Okay, much drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mila Kunis was approached to reprise her role as Lori, John’s girlfriend, but was unable to due to her pregnancy. Her part was written out of the movie and a new love interest was found for John.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Million Ways to Die in the West
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Slow West

Results


Running on empty.

Running on empty.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan, Giovanni Ribisi, Brooklyn Decker, Anthony Michael Hall, Constance Zimmer, Tishuan Scott, Zoe Graham, David Benton, Greg Dorchak, Donn Adelman, Graham Carter, Laura Frances, Lindsay Anne Kent, Stephen Latham, Katie Folger, Elizabeth Berridge. Directed by Andrew Bujalski

Florida Film Festival 2015

When it comes to fitness, only results matter. Either you go from overweight and flabby to fit and muscled or you don’t. Either you start a wellness regimen that works for you or you don’t. If the latter, than no matter what your diet is, no matter how much effort you put in, you are still out-of-shape.

Trevor (Pearce) owns a gym, or as gym owners tend to characterize them these days, a fitness center. He has high hopes to expand his Austin-based property into a franchise, and is on the verge of doing just that. His Power 4 Life fitness center has incorporated a goals-based training philosophy into its way of doing business and employs some fairly expert personal fitness trainers. Chief among them is Kat (Smulders), a high-strung trainer with anger issues. She’s an effective motivator and a patient teacher for the most part but get her outside the training regimen and she’s a mess.

Into the mix comes Danny (Corrigan), a lonely divorcee who is new to Austin. Just days after his divorce became final, he inherited millions and now has nobody to share his new-found wealth with. He vaguely wants to become more fit, fit enough as he tells Trevor, to take a punch. Trevor is a little bit nonplussed but everyone has their reasons for getting fit. As long as the check clears, it’s all good. After some soul searching, he assigns Kat (with whom he’s had a previous relationship that didn’t work out) to be Danny’s personal trainer and sends her to Danny’s palatial but empty mansion.

Danny has enough money to buy him everything but happiness and while he has made the acquaintance of a kind of semi-shady lawyer sort (Ribisi), he really has no friends. So of course he becomes a bit besotted by Kat who reacts – or some would say overreacts – accordingly. This leads to an adjustment in the relationship between Trevor and Kat, a new friendship between Danny and Trevor which eventually dissolves – because of Kat. Relationships are a hell of a lot more complicated than getting in shape.

Bujalski has plenty of indie street cred for his quirky black and white comedy Computer Chess. This is his second feature and has a much bigger budget and recognizable stars, not the least of which is the always reliable Pearce who as usual has the kind of screen presence that plenty of bigger stars don’t come close to possessing. Utilizing his native Aussie accent here, Pearce gives Trevor a kind of Zen-like external calm but inside he’s the proverbial chicken with his head cut off as he tries to cut a deal with the Russian fitness master Grigoriy (Hall) to invest in his gyms.

Smulders, who’s stint on How I Met Your Mother made her a TV star and her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Agent Maria Hill has given her a steady paycheck after that series ended gets to exercise her indie legs, albeit in quite the challenging role. She doesn’t quite pull it off though, being written to be so thoroughly unlikable that even Leona Helmsley seems like Mother Teresa in comparison. Even though she mellows a little by the end of the movie, she has just been so damn annoying all the way through that you don’t much care.

Corrigan, a long time indie stalwart, shines here. He is kind of an Oliver Platt for this generation and that’s a pretty high compliment. Even though Danny is quite the schlub and turns out to be rather petulant and a bit of an asshole at the end of the day, you still end up liking him a little bit.

In fact none of the characters are truly likable, although you end up rooting for Trevor kind of by default. Also, don’t be fooled by the “comedy” portion of the romantic comedy; the wit here is dry as the Mojave in August and those into a broader kind of humor and a more formula kind of romantic comedy may take issue with what they find here. Still, those who appreciate that kind of humor are going to really dig this movie which has a lot going for it, although at the end of the day ends up being a fairly entertaining film but ultimately one that you aren’t going to remember much about once the end credits roll.

REASONS TO GO: Has a bit of fun with gym culture. Pearce always does yeoman work.
REASONS TO STAY: Mostly disposable. Cat is so unlikable that she becomes annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of harsh language, some sexuality and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Smulders was five months pregnant during filming and great pains were taken to disguise her pregnancy. Director Bujalski’s wife also gave birth with two days left remaining in the shooting schedule, forcing a brief delay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Breaking Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: San Andreas