Check it out - the time I got off work aligned with when movie's started, and the Red Sox being on a west-coast trip made it so I didn't miss anything:
A nice, solid week there - Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter was maybe not all it could have been, but frequently good enough to be worth recommending to those that like the screwy; A Cat in Paris is pretty charming for all ages (it moves to the Coolidge's screening room on Friday).
In summer-reading news, I finished The Devotion of Suspect X and really liked it.
Oh, and before we get to the main review of Ted, I've got to say it was kind of neat to see a movie in a cinema that appears in the movie (even if, in 1999, the Somerville probably wasn't showing The Phantom Menace on opening night because it was mostly a second-run place at the time).
* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 June 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, 35mm)
Give the man his due - Seth MacFarlane can be a pretty great voice actor in the Mel Blanc "broad but capable of several distinct characters" mode. Between his work and that of the CGI team, Ted's title character is seldom anything less than a hundred percent believable. MacFarlane is a lot iffier as a writer/director; his first feature has some darn good jokes but also some stuff that isn't nearly as funny as MacFarlane thinks.
That is, to an extent, par for the course; from what I've seen of Family Guy, the non-sequiter pop-culture reference and "ha ha, the character doesn't realize he's being really offensive" bit have been easy go-tos for him for a long time. As isolated bad jokes, you can sort of overlook them, but the plot also tends to be this sort of randomness, which means that when the jokes aren't working, there's not a whole lot to pull you through. The big finale is kind of the worst in that respect - why Fenway Park? What's the deal with Giovanni Ribisi's villain, other than "we need a villain to have a climax"? Is this really saying anything?
Fortunately, the cast is able to make a lot of the movie go smoother than it otherwise would. Mark Wahlberg has the sheer charm and comic timing to make his John Bennett quite likable despite often being an irresponsible twerp, and Mila Kunis is pretty awesome as John's girlfriend Lori. Give MacFarlane some credit here - this is a character that is often written as a shrew or someone who just doesn't fit with her schlubby boyfriend at all, but Lori's got self-respect even if she finds farts funny, while Kunis makes her a lot more than a plot device.
If MacFarlane could refine his material past the initial idea, that would be great. It would certainly make Ted better than just "pretty decent".
People Like Us
* * (out of four)
Seen 1 July 2012 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, Sony Digital 4K)
People Like Us has a nice enough hook that maybe isn't hugely original - hidden relatives discovered after a death in the family - but it's got a good cast to execute that plot with and, at least at the start, is enthusiastic about letting us get to know these characters through their deeds rather than their words. It may not be subtle, but it's at least enthusiastic for a while.
And then, well, it isn't. Chris Pine's Sam learns that Elizabeth Banks's Frankie is a half-sister he'd never known about, but not vice versa, and the movie runs in neutral there for a while. Writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jody Lambert throw a lot of subplots in there to give Pine, Banks, and company something to do while they put People Finding Stuff Out off until the last minute, but it all seems like so much filler: Frankie's obnoxious little brat is just annoying to watch, the FTC investigation Sam is dealing with sometimes gets treated like a ticking clock and sometimes gets ignored; significant others played by Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass just disappear for long stretches. It's like Kurtzman (who directs) and his co-writers know that the stuff with Sam and Frankie is the actual important, interesting material, but don't know any other way to structure it.
Too bad; Pine and Banks are quite nice together, and as much as the last scene is as likely to make one say "you know, you could have done this sooner" as "hey, that all goes together", it works, producing at least semi-legitimate warm fuzzies. I've always thought that Kurtzman & Orci did fairly decent genre work, but maybe without a strong director and/or large-scale action scenes to dazzle, there's just not that much to them.
* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 July 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, 35mm)
Is it giving too much away for me to wonder if Wes Anderson has reconnected with his father and gotten the hug he so clearly craved (or maybe become a doting father to kids of his own, redefining the relationship for him)? I ask because while Fantastic Mr. Fox was much less about yearning for that connection than his previous films, and this one SPOILERS! actually ends on a father figure coming into a boy's life, rather than dwelling on the loss of one !SRELIOPS.
It's nice to see Anderson seem to get past certain hang-ups, at times addressing them very directly - when Kara Hayward's Suzy talks about finding an orphan's life romantic, Jared Gilman's Sam says he loves her, but she doesn't know what she's talking about, and maybe that's Anderson scolding himself a little. Of course, he's not past everything; he's still so precise and controlling in his direction as to nearly choke the life out of the movie. He does avoid that, but sometimes only by the thinnest of margins, although he has always lived right on the border of deadpan and dead.
That's a bit more negative an attitude than the movie likely deserves, though. As much as the adults are generally characters that the great cast doesn't really have to exert themselves much to play (although Bruce Willis and Edward Norton both play their characters like they have much larger roles), the kids are pretty wonderful. One thing Anderson does that's really impressive is that he allows them to be both misunderstood eccentrics and genuinely troubled. There's a flashback where we see that Suzy is not just an outsider because she's smarter than the people around her that is genuinely shocking, but Anderson allows it to inform rather than dominate the rest of the movie. Hayward and Gilman, in addition to anchoring the large chunks of the movie when no adults are around, have as much chemistry as anybody has ever had in a Wes Anderson movie.
The real romance in a Wes Anderson picture is between Anderson and his imagery. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman and production designer Adam Stockhausen are the matchmakers here, and from the start, it's clear there's something special going on. There are lots of kid's-eye-view camera angles and sharp, noticeable pans, as well as a frequently deliberate fuzziness that comes from using wide shots and 16mm film. Anderson and Stockhausen (re)create a child's 1965 just as obsessively as one might imagine - I'm pretty sure some of the props are exact matches for things my frugal, never-throw-anything-away grandmother still had in her house a generation later - but their best work comes out as absurdity. There are shots that seem more cartoon-inspired than anything in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and others which are almost like brainteasers: I half-suspect that split-screens of telephone calls were shot by building half of two sets, putting them together, and having the camera placed just so, and half-suspect that they were stitched together with a computer to look like that's the case.
That's kind of how Wes Anderson movies work, for better or for worse - they're the result of so much attention to detail and droll wit that one can often actually feel empathy for the characters crowded out. Moonrise Kingdom manages to survive that, and often even thrive, making it the best thing he's done since The Royal Tennenbaums.