Movie Review: Ted 2 (2015)

August 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

ted-2-poster

Seth MacFarlane is a talented guy with a sharp tongue and a crass sense of humour. While he can polarize audiences, his first feature film, Ted, was a smash hit that made nearly US$550 million on a US$51 million budget and earned surprisingly positive reviews from critics.

And so of course a sequel would be inevitable. Ted 2 is, like its predecessor, a mixed bag, with some big hits and a fair share of misses. I saw Ted back in 2012 when it first came out so it’s hard to remember clearly, but I don’t recall laughing as hard during that as when I watched Ted 2, which has a decent handful of explosive belly laughs. Strictly speaking, however, while it’s probably not as “good” as the original, it’s possible that Ted 2 is the funnier film, pound for pound and laugh for laugh.

For those who don’t know, the concept behind Ted is that a kid, John Bennett (who grows up to be Marky Mark Wahlberg) once made a wish that his toy bear (Ted, voiced by Seth MacFarlane) would come to life — and that wish came true. It made world headlines when it first happened, but 30 years later no one gives a shit anymore. John and Ted are still best friends, but they are also a couple of sophomoric stoners who do a lot of stupid and crazy things.

Ted 2 is more or less a continuation of that adventure, though this time it centers on Ted’s struggle to be recognised as a human being in a historic court case that is basically a thinly veiled reference to the civil rights movement and gay marriage. With Mila Kunis unable or unwilling to return for whatever reason, Ted 2 takes on a new direction with a new female lead played by the lovely Amanda Seyfried, a new lawyer with a penchant for weed and personality very much like John, presenting a stark contrast to the ex who kept trying to change him.

I was pleasantly surprised that MacFarlane actually put some effort into piecing together a fresh and coherent new storyline. He honestly could have just phoned it in and collected his cheque, so kudos to him for at least trying to create a premise that offers deeper insights than your typical stupid comedy while also providing a solid platform for more offensive and disgusting humour.

The gags come fast and furious (no pun intended) in Ted 2 and they come in all shapes and sizes (ditto). MacFarlane just keeps throwing them at the audience and eventually something will stick. It’s doesn’t necessarily make for a rounded experience but at least it’s a often a damn funny one. There were moments where I went, “You can do better than this,” but also others where I was in awe of McFarlane’s quick wit and demented mind.

The film is at its best when the jokes are less staged. It’s often the off-the-cuff remarks and actions of the characters that elicit the most laughs, whereas the more elaborate jokes MacFarlane takes time to execute tend to be less funny or fall flat by the time the punchline comes. It helps that Marky Mark and MacFarlane have fantastic chemistry and can engage in rapid-fire exchanges with ease, and that Amanda Seyfried is able to slide in between them seamlessly (again, no pun intended).

The supporting cast also deliver some great gags and lines. Tom Brady is involved in a doozy that took up more screen time than I had expected, while Patrick Warburton is fantastic just popping up randomly and being a dick. My favourite, however, still has to be Giovanni Ribisi, who returns as the psychotic Donny from the first film and is thirsty for revenge. The always welcome Morgan Freeman also has a small role — shockingly, not as God or the narrator — though he doesn’t get down and dirty as much as I would have liked.

There are aspects to Ted 2 that I didn’t like or didn’t find funny, but there are enough jokes that hit the bulls-eye for me to rate it above many smarter, more consistent comedies that don’t quite generate the full on, gut-busting laughs. I recommend it to anyone who doesn’t get offended or grossed-out too easily.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

June 30, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

AMW

Seth MacFarlane is an acquired taste, and his latest project, A Million Ways to Die in the West, encapsulates the best and worst of his comedic sensitivities.

It’s also the first time the talented voice actor, who voiced the teddy in Ted and a multitude of characters on Family Guy, fronts the big screen as the leading man of a Hollywood production.

The result is a hit-and-miss farce that showcases some of MacFarlane’s sharp wit but also the low-brow humour he has often criticised for.

MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a man living in the Wild West who is so self-ware that you suspect he might be from the future (and though this is never explicitly suggested, there are a couple of surprises which might be enough to convince some people).

Albert is a sheep farmer who is dumped by his big-eyed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who thinks little of him as a man and prefers someone a little more macho, like, for example, the mustache-bearing Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). At his lowest point, Albert meets Anna (Charlize Theron), who decides to help him win back Louise. However, what she doesn’t tell him is that she happens to be the wife of the West’s most dangerous man (Liam Neeson).

You can guess the rest of this predictably conventional plot, but let’s be honest — no one cares about the plot. A Million Ways is all about laughs, and MacFarlane never stops trying to deliver them, however he can.

The central gag is essentially MacFarlane pointing out the absurdities of the West, from the boredom of life to its many life-shortening/life-ending dangers, as spelled out in the film’s title. Some of them work, some of them don’t. I giggled at about a handful of his “observations,” but most of the other ones felt either obvious or delivered without sufficient “punch.” There were many more “yeah, that’s a good one” kind of jokes than genuine, laugh-out-loud ones.

MacFarlane is at the top of his game when he is delivering biting satire, and while there is a lot of that in A Million Ways, the “bite” is never as sharp as it ought to be. Perhaps he’s trying to dumb down his comedy for general audiences, or perhaps his jokes are just funnier when they come from cartoon characters or a talking teddy bear rather than himself.

Speaking of dumbing things down, there are waaaay too many fart jokes in the movie. It’s not that such jokes can’t be funny, but they generally aren’t here. I love low-brow jokes as much as the next guy, but I just felt the fart (and shit and vulgar sex) jokes, which are typically very difficult to be effective, make up too high a proportion of the total gags.

MacFarlane is adequate as a leading man. He doesn’t have quite enough charm to pull off the whole thing by himself, though the chemistry he has with his co-stars — in particular Charlize Theron, the “straight man” for him to bounce jokes off — offsets his inadequacies to a some extent.

The four main supporting characters balance out MacFarlane well because they don’t have his level of self-awareness. Giovanni Ribisi plays Albert’s best friend, and his one and only gag is that his girlfriend, played by comedian Sarah Silverman, is a prostitute who won’t sleep with him until they’re married. It’s a gag that works well in principle but gets old quickly in practice.

The more dynamic duo is Amanda Seyfried and NPH, the latter of whom is in scintillating form as a douchebag for the ages. It’s a custom-made role for him and he just runs with it, and in the process nearly steals the show.

At 116 minutes, the film is about 15-20 minutes too long, and you get the sense watching it that MacFarlane struggled to cut it down because he was too in love with his own material.

To sum it up, A Million Ways is a serviceable farce comedy that takes a creative idea but can’t quite live up to its full potential. Joke for joke, I found it less funny and more uneven than Ted. On the other hand, that still makes it smarter and edgier than most comedies you’ll see these days.

3 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 8

August 22, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Men in Black 3 (2012)

mib3-poster

I still remember the hype surrounding the original Men In Black in 1997, which officially catapulted Will Smith into big screen superstardom. I also vividly remember watching Men In Black II in 2002, and falling asleep during it. So when Men In Black III, which comes 10 years after the sequel, hit our cinemas, I didn’t have much interest, though I did eventually catch it on DVD.

This time, with Tommy Lee Jones quite literally “too old for this shit,” they got Josh Brolin to play a younger version of Agent K to team up with Will Smith’s Agent J in a plot commonly seen for third movies in a franchise — time travel, in the vein of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (classic film and arcade game).

As expected, MIB III was a tired old affair trying to milk the dollars. It wasn’t horrible, and it was an undoubted upgrade over its immediate predecessor, but there just wasn’t anything that could get me excited. I love aliens as much as the next X-File fan, though in this case they weren’t enough. Josh Brolin was surprisingly good and convincing as the younger Tommy Lee, who still got top billing despite the very limited screen time, though there were just too many Will Smith-esque dry jokes for my liking.

I know some critics found the film unassuming and fun, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like it. And I can’t believe they have confirmed another one.

2 stars out of 5

Ted (2012)

Ted-movie-poster

I keep reminding myself to watch more of Seth MacFarlane’s stuff, especially the sharp and cutting Family Guy, but for whatever reason I just haven’t found the time. I was fortunate enough to watch Ted on a long-haul flight last year, and notwithstanding the effects of my soothing in-flight Xanax, I found the film to be a cracking good time. Not perfect by any means, but different enough and funny enough to make it one of the standout comedies of the year.

Marky Mark Wahlberg plays John, a kid whose wish that his teddy bear — Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) — would come to life. Sure, they are celebrities for a while, but eventually they grow up and have the face the realities of life, including John’s girlfriend, played by Mila Kunis.

At its core, Ted is a buddy movie where one is a screw-up (in this case the teddy) who holds the other guy back from realizing his full potential, but in all honesty the film is all about the laughs and the crude jokes. The script is somewhat inconsistent, but when it comes to generating laughs, Ted delivers. There are times when MacFarlane tiptoes around the edges of good taste (and in some cases steps over the bounds), but it really depends on what your personal limits are. For me, the vast majority of it was fine, and even the ones that were dangerous elicited a guilty chuckle.

MacFarlane does a wicked Ted, with a low, alcoholic voice laced with a thick Boston accent. Marky Mark is also perfect playing his typical dropkick-with-a-heart-of-gold character, and Mila Kunis shines as his sassy girlfriend. Special mention goes out to Giovanni Ribisi, who delivers a hilarious performance as a psycho obsessed with Ted.

In all, Ted is an acquired taste that may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but as warped as it is the film is also undoubtedly funny.

4 stars out of 5

Flight (2012)

flight-poster-US

Denzel being Denzel is pretty much how I would sum up Flight, Robert Zemeckis’s (trying saying that quickly three times) first live action film since the awesome What Lies Beneath from 2000.

Denzel plays Whip, a skilled airline pilot who dabbles in women, alcohol and drugs. But when he miraculously lands a crashing plane and saves nearly everyone on board, he is hailed a hero — until the authorities start looking into his toxicology reports. Should the pilot’s state of mind and body be relevant if it wasn’t his fault that the plane was crashing in the first place? Shouldn’t all that matter be the fact that he saved people’s lives? And just how far would you go to protect your reputation even if it isn’t real? Those are the type of questions Flight asks its viewers.

It’s a fascinating story about truth and addiction and one man’s battle against demons that threaten to consume his life. Denzel is of course brilliant as the complex Whip, which is why he got another Oscar nomination, but the one who stole the show for me was Brit Kelly Reilly (I last saw her in the 2008 horror Eden Lake with Michael Fassbender), who plays a recovering drug addict with demons of her own.

Flight is a heavy drama tackling depressing issues, so there was a sense of gloom throughout the whole film, but you know the emotional lift will come eventually after Whip hits rock bottom. In that sense I found the whole thing a little predictable, though I can’t deny the effectiveness of the dramatic sequences and the performances. It’s one of those films you can appreciate but won’t be much more than a fuzzy memory in a few years.

3.75 stars out of 5

Smiley (2012)

smiley-poster-internacional-399x600

I was surfing YouTube for film trailers one day at work and I kept seeing ads on the right hand column for this slasher flick called Smiley, featuring a killer with — you guessed it — a mutilated smiley face. The trailer looked generic and horrible but I watched it anyway, and it is a decision I will have to live with for the rest of my life.

In short, Smiley is one of the worst movies of the year. Pathetic and derivative plot, laughable acting and zero scares, not even visceral ones. The idea  is a mish mash rip off of Candyman and Scream — that if you type a silly phrase into a webchat three times, Smiley will show up and kill the person on the other side. Of course, some moronic girl, played by Caitlin Gerard, decides to do it, and watching Smiley kill someone traumatizes her. The bodies then start piling up, and surprise surprise, no one believes her and thinks she’s going crazy. This was about the same point I wondered whether I was going crazy because surely the film could not be this abhorrent. But it was.

Caitlin Gerard is pretty to look at but all that crying and screaming and acting scared convinced no one. Even at 95 minutes I wondered regularly if the film was ever going to end. The end.

0.5 stars out of 5

Oscars consultancy adventure and rant

March 24, 2013 in Best Of, Blogging, Entertainment, Misc

oscars-statues-image-1

In typical me-fashion, I am blogging about something that happened almost a month ago. That’s right; I’m talking about the 85th Academy Awards.

Consultancy adventure

This recap is really for my own selfish benefit because I don’t want to forget it in case I never get invited again. Not to the Oscars, of course (though I still hold out hope that this could still happen some day – as soon as I have the time and money to write, produce, direct and star in my own film, Tommy Wisseau-style), but to be a consultant on its Taiwan telecast.

Allow me to take a step back and explain. A few weeks ago (well, a month and a few weeks ago), a colleague recommended me to one of the two TV stations with rights to broadcast the Oscars in Taiwan. These stations will air the Oscars (at least) twice – live in the morning (Taiwan time) and again at night with subtitles. Each producer will have a team of dedicated translators who will work tirelessly all throughout the day to get those subtitles ready in time for the second telecast.

Sounds easy, or so I thought, but it’s actually a lot of work. It’s more than just direct translations from English to Chinese — there could be a lot of obscure film, TV, music, pop culture or fashion references that need to be researched and confirmed; jokes, slang words or accents that are difficult to understand for non-native speakers; or just a lot of indecipherable mumbling and hollering that even most native speaker don’t get. All of it has to be impeccably translated, verified and matched with the recorded footage. While there are bits of scripted material and lists of names that will be translated in advance, the vast majority of the work is done on the day, on the spot.

Where did I come in? Well, notwithstanding the dozen or so high-quality translators they hired for the day, they still needed someone with English as their native tongue who knew a thing or two about the movies. Just in case. The pay, as is usually the case in Taiwan, is not great, but to be honest I would have done it for nothing. I’d have to take a day off work, but I knew the experience of being a part of an Oscars telecast was too good to pass up.

We started early. By the time I arrived at 7:30am, the two rooms dedicated to the challenge were already filled with translators plugging away and preparing for the dreaded red carpet (which would be re-broadcast with subtitles after the ceremony in the rerun later that night). The rooms themselves were small and crowded. One was crammed with tables and laptops for the translators, while the other was crammed with couches and a TV for people like me.

This is the TV I watched the broadcast on

This is the TV I watched the broadcast on

The day itself was a blast. Very long but extremely enjoyable and insightful. It was fun to watch the Oscars live for once (it’s usually on during work hours in Sydney and it was impossible to avoid finding out the winners before getting home) and with a group of people who have a passion for film.

For the majority of the live broadcast I was glued to the TV with our other consultant, a radio personality in Taiwan who once tutored Chinese actress Gong Li (you know, the one with the icy stare from Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice) in English for a year. Apparently she is…um…nice — in person, that is.

Gong Li stares

Gong Li stares

Every now and then we would hear a call from the other room for “er duo” (literally “ears”), and we would go scampering over to assist. Sometimes it would be to decipher the name of a fashion brand (especially during the red carpet), or the punchline of a joke, or the name of a person mentioned during the acceptance speeches. Sometimes it was just a whole lot of gibberish from William Shatner or Queen Latifah.

Shatner tearing it up at the Oscars

Shatner tearing it up at the Oscars

The only real “work” I had to do all day was to help transcribe a couple of songs from the opening act of host Seth MacFarlane – so that the translators could use them to do the Chinese subtitles. On this point, I am disappointed to say, I could not, for the life of me, figure out one of the lines in MacFarlane’s final song, Be Our Guest, in which he tried to make fun of the name of the nine-year-old Oscar-nominated star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhane Wallis.

Southern Wild had some luck, it was made for 50 bucks

With a star whose name looks like a …?

After listening to it about 50 times, none of us could figure out what the heck Quvenzhane’s name looks like. It didn’t really matter in the end because the Chinese translation simply needed to convey that her name was difficult to read or pronounce, though I must admit that the line really bugged me for the rest of the day. After researching on Google and Twitter I still couldn’t find a single person who knew what he was referring to.

(A few weeks later, an article I read suggested that he had compared the name to “a vision test” – which could be correct, but even watching it again now I still think it doesn’t quite sound right. Check out the video of the entire opening below – the line comes in at around the 13:44 mark.)

Anyway, the rest of the broadcast went along very smoothly, with Ang Lee’s win for best director, naturally, drawing the biggest emotional high. It was probably the only time during the day that everyone stopped whatever they were doing and just watched the man they call “the pride of Taiwan” (along with basketballer Jeremy Lin, pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, and any other Taiwanese person or person with Taiwanese heritage who has ever done anything remotely newsworthy in the world – though one must wonder why Justin Lin, the Taiwanese-born director of the last few entries in the Fast & Furious franchise, has barely gotten a mention).

The moment Ang Lee accepted his Oscar for Life of Pi

The moment Ang Lee accepted his Oscar for Life of Pi

Much of the real work would come after the awards ceremony ended. You would think with a dozen or so people each translating a different segment that it wouldn’t take all that long to translate every word uttered in a three-and-a-half-hour ceremony and the preceding red carpet show – but it does! It really is hard work.

I must mention here that the translators we had working on the subtitles were amazing. Since moving here a little more than a year ago I’ve often been appalled with the quality of the translations in Taiwan – even for official government documents, brochures and marketing campaigns. But the people they hired on this day were all brilliant; I’m sure they are some of the best translators in Taiwan. I was particularly impressed by their meticulousness and their abilities to pick up the nuances and fudge difficult lines into coherence. One of them was a subtitle specialist who had worked on more than 5,000 films and TV shows, including good old porn (which is, allegedly, a pretty stiff job given that much of the dialogue occurs during hardcore close-up scenes…).

I feel I really should write a post on the plight of translators in Taiwan some day because it’s a topic I’m sure many people are passionate about. In short, it’s a shitty industry because the pay is so low and the work is so often very very hard. There are plenty of translation agencies out there taking advantage of translators by offering ridiculously low rates of say US$0.01 a word. At the same time, there are a lot of hopeless translators vying for – and often scoring – freelance gigs because they are willing to work for peanuts in exchange for horrendous translations. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps dragging down both the quality and the price of translation work in the country.

But I digress.

Oscars day was fun, and it stretched well into the evening and beyond the 8pm start time for the re-run thanks to the final subtitles for the red carpet. Contrary to my understanding of how Taiwanese media treat their staff, all of us were well looked after, with all three meals taken care of throughout the day. I really hope there will be another opportunity to work with them again in the future.

Thoughts on the Oscars

Seth MacFarlane as host

As for the ceremony itself, I thought this year’s was one of the better ones. Seth MacFarlane received average to negative reviews for his performance, but I actually thought he was pretty good. Not gut-bustingly funny but amusing enough for the stuffy Oscar oldies, and nowhere near as uncomfortable as Ricky Gervais. Yes, the opening monologue was a little longer than usual, but I’ve always considered it the most entertaining part of the show, so no complaints from me.

As for the low-brow humor, including the “We Saw Your Boobs” song (in which all the actresses were clearly in on the joke) and some orgy comments from his teddy bear creation Ted, I don’t think any of it was unexpected. I mean, come on, the show’s organizers knew exactly what they were getting when they signed the creator of Family Guy and Ted – no one could say with a straight face that they had expected him to be Hugh Jackman and keep away from the crude jokes. No one can beat Billy Crystal, of course, but at least MacFarlane was better than the disaster that was Anne Hathaway and James Franco in 2011 (almost entirely the fault of the stoned latter) and the bizarre duo of Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin the year before.

My favorite parts of the opening monologue were those that received assistance from another star – the Star Trek segments with William Shatner and the Flying Nun skit with Sally Field. On the whole, however, it was one of the better openings in recent memory. As they say, it’s the toughest gig in Hollywood, so kudos to MacFarlane for at least having the balls to take it on when he knew he’d probably be savaged for it.

Seth MacFarlane as the Flying Nun

Seth MacFarlane as the Flying Nun

Winners and losers

Having finally watched all of the nine best picture nominees, I have to say that this was a strange year in which there was no real favorite because no film really dominated.

Argo, which won best picture, only had a single acting nomination (for Alan Arkin), while its director, Ben Affleck, didn’t even get a nomination. And let’s face it: it was a very very good film, but still one of the weaker best picture winners in Oscar history. At least it was better than Crash.

They may take away my best director nomination, but they can never take away this Oscar!!

They may take away my best director nomination, but they can never take away this Oscar!!

On the other hand, you had Lincoln, which may have ticked all the boxes but was a bore that few would call the best film of the year. Amour was the token foreign film nominee that was far too depressing to win, and Beasts of the Southern Wild was a nice little fairytale (given its shoestring budget) that was too weird for a lot of people (including me).

Les Miserables divided audiences and critics alike (I was more against it than for it), while Zero Dark Thirty was too “controversial.” Personally, my three favourite films of the best picture nominees were Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi, probably in that order.

If I were a betting man, I probably would have put my money on Life of Pi because it will probably go down as the most memorable of the lot, and plus Ang Lee won for best director, which I felt was totally deserved. But unlike many who have seen it I didn’t think it was that amazing. Django and Silver Linings Playbook weren’t perfect and were genres unlikely to win best picture, but they were by far the most enjoyable of the nominees.

At the end of the day, Argo probably won by default.

As for the rest of the major categories, apart from best director (for which I thought Spielberg was the favourite) and best supporting actor (Tommy Lee Jones reportedly had the odds on his side), most of the outcomes were predictable. Daniel Day-Lewis, the male Meryl Streep, rarely loses once he gets nominated. The annoying thing is that you know he totally deserves it every time. The only guy that really could have competed with Daniel Day out of the nominees was Joaquin Phoenix, and you know they were never giving it to him.

One of the best non-Ang Lee moments at the Oscars this year was when Jennifer Lawrence, who is on the verge of overtaking Kate Winslet as my favourite actress, won for Silver Linings Playbook. I thought Jessica Chastain was excellent in Zero Dark Thirty, but Lawrence really hit a home run with her performance and proved that her nomination for Winter’s Bone a couple of years ago was no fluke. To top things off, she stacked it on the steps while heading up to the stage. Right now she’s like the female Ryan Gosling – impossible to dislike no matter how hard you try – well, except he’s still looking for his first Oscar.

Jennifer Lawrence takes a tumble on her way to the stage

Jennifer Lawrence takes a tumble on her way to the stage

Anne Hathaway’s win for supporting actress in Les Miserables turned out to be the most “meh” moment of the night. Yeah, she was good, but she pretty much won for shaving her head and signing one song. I wasn’t anywhere near that bandwagon..

Christoph Waltz has now made it two for two in his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino. I think this is why his win surprised a lot of people, because few expected that he would win the same award for the same director two times in a row. All the nominees were great, but if we were being honest with ourselves we would admit that the guy who truly deserved to win didn’t even get nominated. Waltz won for playing a Nazi, so I don’t get any of this “too controversial” or “to villainous” argument against Leonardo DiCaprio, who absolutely should have taken home the golden statuette this year.

Let's face it, Leo was robbed

Let’s face it, Leo was robbed

One final comment about the best foreign film category, which to no one’s surprise was captured by Amour this year. I said the same thing a dozen years ago when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won it: how can a film in that category NOT be the best foreign film if it is the ONLY one also nominated for best picture? It may seem unfair to deprive films like Amour and Crouching Tiger of an Oscar win for best foreign film, but it also completely kills any chance the other nominees in the category have.

PS: On a side note, it was kind of ridiculous that last year’s best picture winner, The Artist, did not get a nomination for best foreign film because the award is actually “best foreign language film.” So despite being a French movie made by a French production company, with a French director and French stars, The Artist was ruled ineligible because the few words uttered in the film were, more or less, in English. Another reason for this is because each foreign country can only submit ONE film for consideration to the Academy, which is totally stupid too.