TED

By R. David

Published June 29, 2012

I was as much a fan of Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” as anyone when it first aired on Fox in 1999; and I was as excited as the next guy to have it return after being unceremoniously canceled due to low ratings, but brought back thanks to strong DVD sales, and an extremely loyal and vocal cult following.  Despite the popularity of “South Park” and a handful of shows on Adult Swim on cable TV, the extremely ribald and schizophrenic tone of “Family Guy” was ahead of its time on network TV.  But in the years since “Family Guy’s” return, Fox has seemed determined never to repeat the mistake they made in taking its creator and his products for granted again, greenlighting a seemingly endless barrage of similar-in-tone MacFarlane animated sitcoms.  These shows vary in quality, and MacFarlane’s flagship series has dipped considerably as his attention has been split amongst his other ventures (or perhaps it’s just the inevitable fatigue a show that has been on the air for a decade is bound to experience), so it was with some skepticism that I approached his first foray into mainstream filmmaking, “Ted”.  A feature-length film about a foul-mouthed talking teddy bear doesn’t exactly have the ring of MacFarlane branching out.  I was prepared for simply another variation on the same offensively juvenile tropes that have become his stock in trade.

The truth is “Ted” is hardly a change of pace for MacFarlane.  It is indeed essentially a concept from one of his animated shows writ large for the big screen (in the past he’s delivered a talking baby, a talking dog, a talking alien; so why not a talking teddy bear?).  But with “Ted” MacFarlane has found a way to recapture some of the fresh, zany magic he held when “Family Guy” when was new and exciting.  He might not be reinventing the wheel here, but by painting on the larger canvas a feature film provides and taking advantage of the freedom that an R-rating allows him, MacFarlane delivers a film firmly in his (and his audience’s) wheelhouse, free from the shackles of network television restrictions. You can almost feel his creative juices flowing (yes, I’m aware MacFarlane would have a field day with such a phrase), which makes for an exciting and energized movie-going experience, even if he never exactly raises the bar on the sort of humor and storytelling style he chooses to dabble in.

Yes, against all the current MacFarlane odds, “Ted” manages to be one of the funniest movies I have seen this year.  Juvenile or not, I laughed hard and often (there’s another freebee, Seth!).  The movie stars Mark Whalberg as John, a mid-30s loafer who not only lives his life in a state of perpetual arrested development, but has only his childhood talking teddy bear as a friend (voiced by MacFarlane).  And I don’t mean “talking” as in pull-the-string-on-his back-and-you’ll-hear-some-recorded-phrases.  No; as a picked-on youth John made a Christmas wish that his teddy bear, Ted, would come to life.  Of course, it did.  And of course being a walking, talking teddy bear made Ted an instant celebrity.  But just as many child stars don’t navigate the pitfalls and temptations of celebrity particularly well, neither did Ted.  He has grown into a burned-out, foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed borderline alcoholic whose only desire is to spend endless hours in front of the TV in a fog of booze and pot.  And he has been John’s enabler to do the same.  Despite his go-nowhere attitude and talking teddy bear roommate, John has managed to find a smart, successful and beautiful girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis), who is forever waiting for him to get his shit together (don’t they always?), even though he continually disappoints her, usually as a result of Ted’s poor influence.  Where the movie picks up, John knows Lori is expecting both an engagement and some sign of ambition to start a career.  As usual, Ted either willingly or unwilling thwarts John’s every attempt to mature and stay out of trouble.

Any way you slice it, “Ted’s” plot is standard stuff.  The romantic conflict between John and his girlfriend created by things like his laziness, lack of career prospects and his bad-influence friend is as typical a genre trope as the fact that a girl like Lori would be with a guy like John in the first place.  Similarly, the bromance dynamic between John and Ted and the sequences where Ted always shows up at the wrong time, says or does the wrong thing, or is misunderstood simply to further the relationship conflicts between all the characters is also obvious, clichéd stuff.  Where “Ted” succeeds is not in being some sort of blazingly original comedy, but in the area that matters most in a comedy:  the laughs.  MacFarlane has the ability to not only devise some great comic situations, but he is able to keep building on them.  Yes, sometimes he pushes to hard or milks a joke well past the point of being funny, but more often than not, it is the lengths he will go with a gag to get a laugh that make them funny in spite of themselves.  For instance; sequences like the ones where Ted attempts to be as offensive as possible in hopes of being fired from the job he hates a super market, the increasingly outlandish drug-fueled party scene, or a running-gag involving Flash Gordon, and another involving a Ted-obsessed stalker (Giovanni Ribisi) who has desperately wanted Ted for himself since he was a child; just to name a few.  This stuff is often offensive and, obviously, not for all tastes, but there is an energy and comic timing to the proceedings and performances that render it all riotously funny at times.  Mark Whalberg, who is always good in a comedy, pulls off an agreeable performance in a role that requires him to remain likeable despite plenty of sequences of vulgarity, drug use and violence.  Granted, it’s all played for laughs, and with a teddy bear being the antagonist, none of the more off-putting elements feel icky in a way they otherwise might.  Similarly, the more conventional elements of script are largely forgiven because seeing a foul-mouthed teddy bear inserted into the more clichéd proceedings gives them a new spin to say the least, and that generally keeps the predictable beats interesting all by itself.

It should be noted too that what MacFarlane does to bring Ted to life is no easy task.  Voice-over work is an art form like any other where movie making is concerned, and it is because of MacFarlane’s stellar delivery and timing that Ted becomes a convincing character at all, not to mention one as hilariously memorable as on display here.  Between MacFarlane’s skill behind the microphone and the seamless CGI effects, Ted always feels like a legitimate character, the come-to-life teddy bear he is, rather than something awkwardly grafted into each scene.  And you have to credit all the cast members who interact in scenes with Ted when you consider during filming they were likely interacting with nothing at all.  There is never scene with Ted and a real actor that is less than seamless.

But MacFarlane wrote and directed “Ted” in addition to voicing the title character, so he deserves a bulk of the credit.  Sure, not every joke works, as mentioned there are some predictable moments, and the movie runs on too long (though despite this, there is never too long of a stretch without a laugh), but MacFarlane has in essence created one of the best buddy movies in years.  Conceptually it is also certainly one of the strangest; but on any level it is also one of the funniest.

3 and a half stars out of 4.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER

By Ron David

Published June 22, 2012

Obviously, any movie titled “Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter” (based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s cult novel) is not meant to be taken seriously.  It’s a shame nobody bothered to tell that to the people who made it.  The high concept and stylish trailer promise some sort of madcap romp where, as if in a parallel universe, the 16th president of the United States saw his parents murdered by vampires as a young man and became a lawyer by day (and ultimately president) while slaying vampires by night.  All the landmarks of Lincoln’s real life and presidency remain here, he simply also has taken a vow to emancipate the country of vampires (he can also obliterate a tree with a single blow of an axe and surf on the backs of stampeding horses).  For the intended audience, there is potentially great fun to be had in such a concept, and director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”, “Night Watch”) and (particularly) producer Tim Burton are certainly great matches for the material.  But curiously, while they give the film’s look and action sequences the stylish zip you’d expect, they seem unable to settle on an appropriate tone.  Benjamin Walker plays Lincoln with the sullen focus you’d expect from someone who has seen his parents murdered by vampires, vows to avenge their deaths, and has to put in the work necessary to become president; but the film around him is similarly morose, like an earnest docudrama about Lincoln that just happens to have occasional big set pieces in which he must dispatch the undead in a variety of humorously gory ways.  For the film’s set-up and opening scenes, this is an effective enough way to set the stage and lend the story some authenticity (there’s a cool effect during the opening narration where the landscape and landmarks of Washington D.C. as we know it today dissolves into D.C. of the mid-1800s), but the movie never loosens up.  It’s as if Bekmambetov wants to have it both ways:  a totally serious movie about a totally ridiculous idea.  But I’m sure we can all agree there is no possible way this material can be taken seriously, nor does anyone lining up for a movie called “Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter” wish to.  The film should be a funny, campy romp; not an alternate-reality costume drama with occasional vampire slaying.  But the movie plays its concept completely straight, rather than as the madcap B-movie the title suggests.  Those expecting something along the lines of “From Dusk Till Dawn” will be sorely disappointed.

2 stars out of 4.