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Column Fri Jun 26 2015

Ted 2, Max, The Overnight, Manglehorn, A Little Chaos & Infinitely Polar Bear

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Ted 2

I think I have a fairly foolproof way to determine if you'll like sequel to the unexpected 2012 hit Ted, the film that paired Mark Wahlberg and a foul-mouth, pothead teddy bear voiced by "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane (who also directed and co-wrote). Whatever your reaction to Ted was, that will likely be your reaction to Ted 2, which expands the mythology of the character a bit and even finds a way (some might say, appropriately) to equate Ted's struggle to be given the same rights as a person (to marry, adopt, hold a job, and presumably donate organs) to current headlines about marriage equality struggles and other civil rights concerns. Ted and his human pal John (Wahlberg) still manage to have lewd and crude adventures in their quest to get the bear his rights, and they offend pretty much everyone they come into contract with in the process.

The film opens with Ted and girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) getting married and asking John to donate sperm for their baby (after a failed attempt to "steal" a sample from Tom Brady is thwarted by Tom Brady). Shortly after John has gallons of semen dumped on him (all in the name of a single stupid punchline) at the fertility clinic, the feds decide that since he's not human, Ted's marriage isn't real and he can't legally be the father of the baby. He is, in fact, property; something that his old nemesis Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) is planning to take advantage of with the help of the toy company that made Ted (led by John Carroll Lynch). Donny wants to reclaim Ted for Hasbro, so they can see what makes him tick in the hopes of manufacturing more talking, thinking, feeling toys just like him.

John and Ted are assigned, pro bono, rookie lawyer Samantha Jackson (Amanda Seyfried) to attempt to take his case to trial and secure Ted's rights, and the case begins to generate publicity as the team heads to New York to meet with big-time civil rights attorney Patrick Meighan (Morgan Freeman). There are a smattering of celebrity cameos — some playing themselves, others just popping in for bit parts. Flash Gordon's Sam J. Jones is back as the boys' one true famous friend. And there's a very strange Liam Neeson appearance in a grocery that I couldn't explain if I wanted to (stay until after the credits to see how that gag pays off).

But is it funny? As I said at the top, your reaction to this film will likely be the same as the first because it's about as funny. There are more one-liners that hit than don't; and some of the more extended gags pay off tremendously, while other just hit the ground with the thud of silence. There are a great number of "Family Guy"-like asides (one set at an improv show sticks in my mind as especially hilarious), and those mostly work. One of my favorite running jokes is a series of comments about a particular aspect of Seyfried's appearance that pays of quite nicely in the film's climactic chase scene through New York Comic-Con.

I'm in no way claiming either Ted movie is high art, but MacFarlane certainly has his moments of clever humor right alongside his dippiest dick and poop jokes. There is something really interesting and entertaining about watching Wahlberg basically take a back seat to a CG teddy bear, and just play dumb and stoned for two hours. If I had one major complaint about the structure of the film, it's that Wahlberg's role is somewhat diminished, even when he's on screen. The guy has proven himself to have a fairly on-point sense of comic timing, and it's a shame he's been reduced to getting covered in jizz and getting freaked out when he smokes some especially strong weed. I was a fan of Ted, and dammit, I laughed a lot at Ted 2. Sue me, because your sense of humor is so sophisticated.

Max

Somewhere in the world is a great story about the elite dog soldiers who have helped the military for centuries. In the war in Afghanistan, for example, these dogs were used to locate munitions or people hiding in buildings. And like all soldiers, these dogs are susceptible to all of the injuries — mental and physical — that human soldiers are, including post-traumatic stress disorder. In the new film Max, a canine used by the U.S. Marines — specifically Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell) — is brought back to the United States when his trainer is killed in combat. Rattled and traumatized by the event, Max (a Belgian Shepherd) is eventually given to the family of Wincott, which includes his parents (Thomas Haden Church and Lauren Graham) and his younger brother Justin (Josh Wiggins, so good in last year's Hellion).

Even before Kyle's death, the Wincott family was in turmoil. Justin is a punk kid, selling pirated video games to local thugs and drug dealers for a nice profit, and we assume it's only a matter of time until he gets into much worse behavior. He also couldn't care less about his brother's adventures in Afghanistan. But when Max is given over the family, for some reason the dog is drawn to Justin, and the two eventually bond in a way that Justin hasn't with anyone else in his family. A combat vet himself, his father rides him pretty hard about "being a man" and "sacrifice," but he can't help but be impressed at how willing Justin is to take responsibility for the dog.

Justin's best friend Chuy (Dejon LaQuake) asks his cute female cousin Carmen (Mia Xitlali) to come help re-train Max, since she has people in her family that take in rescue dogs, and the three of them eventually become inseparable. I suppose writer-director Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans, A Price Above Rubies, Fresh) felt like the story of this dog and his new owner wasn't interesting enough to hold our attention, so he added a love interest for Justin and a small drug-dealing cartel to this small Texas town that Max & Friends must defeat before everyone can be fully healed. You can still see the numbers in this paint-by-numbers, would-be action film, featuring a whole lot of running dogs (there are villainous canines too in the form of a pair of nasty Rottweilers), speeding cars, gunplay, stunt biking, and even an exploding bridge. And nearly every second of it seems unnecessary.

There's nothing wrong with the actors in the film. Wiggins is a rising young actor who hasn't learned any bad habits in front of the camera yet, and let's hope it stays that way. Graham and Church are both good as grieving parents, trying their best to salvage the relationship they have with their remaining boy. But all of the cliche drug-dealer walk and talk feels tacked on, laughable, and worse than pointless. For reasons you can probably figure out, you can't help but root for a film like this to get enough right to at least be admirable, if not great. But Max is an empty exercise in vague patriotism that does a disservice to the very subject it's attempting to pay tribute to. And that's a shame because, as I said, I guarantee you there's a solid story to be told about military dogs one day, but this one ain't it.

The Overnight

One of the most thoroughly enjoyable experiences at Sundance this year was the new film from writer-director Patrick Brice, whose previous film, Creep, premiered at Sundance last year and is just now being released on iTunes first before hitting Netflix in mid-July. Creep is a fairly effective two-character thriller, and I went into The Overnight based solely on the strength that film, so much so that I didn't even read the plot synopsis. But the fact that the film premiered in a midnight slot led me to assume it was another horror-type film, which is not even close to the case.

The Overnight follows new arrivals in LA Emily and Alex (Taylor Schilling of "Orange Is the New Black" and Adam Scott from "Parks and Recreation"), who have moved there with their young son for Emily's work. On their first venture out to a nearby park, the meet Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), who is there with his similarly aged son, and the kids seem to hit it off, as do the parents. After talking about the pluses of the neighborhood, Kurt invites the couple to join him and his wife Charlotte (French actress Judith Godrèche) for their weekly pizza night.

On the surface, the film is about two very different couples, whose ideas about living life are both positive in nature but take wildly different forms. Both seem like happy couples, but after countless drinks and a bit of weed, the intricacies of both relationships begin to reveal themselves in both very funny and somewhat serious ways. And while it appears Kurt and Charlotte are steering the encounter toward some sort of group sex or spouse-swapping scenario, things are not always what they seem.

The real surprise in The Overnight is Schwartzman, who is often the best part of any film he's a part of. But his Kurt is far from the neurotic or antagonistic types he's played in the past; Kurt is a confident man with very clear ideas about the work he does (he's an part-time artist, architect, and maker of short films that need to be seen to be appreciated). The way Kurt pushes things with Emily and Alex just enough to make them uneasy, but not so much so that they get uncomfortable enough to leave. Everyone is having a great time, but there's an underlying tension throughout most of the film because we're certain Kurt and Charlotte have ulterior motives. The mistake is believing they have the same motive.

I'm not trying to make The Overnight seem like a thriller. It's a pure adult comedy, complete with frank sex talk, a great deal of nudity (even by the men, sort of). What begins as a playdate for the kids turns into one that is far more geared toward the adults, and all four performers are quite good, playing people who are a various stages of being okay with where their respective roads seem to be leading them. Adam Scott's Max has the most perceivable story arc as a man with major body issues and gets wasted enough to attempt to deal with them. In the course of just the one night in which the film takes place, Max has the most revelations and awakenings in his body and mind. His attitudes shift just enough to cause a mild panic in Emily

Filmmaker Brice does a beautiful job of keeping the proceedings sexy and loose, light and funny, with a touch of mystery enveloping the whole affair. Above all else, The Overnight is about knowing one's self, recognizing certain insecurities that we might share with these characters, and finding ways to deal with them — not always in the most logical manner. At various points in the film, you'll find reasons to like and want to hang out with each of the characters, and that's the point.

By never letting us settle into an opinion about any one of these four people, we're open to finding each of them fascinating at various points in the story. And it's good to know that a filmmaker who cut his teeth on horror is able to expand into a deeper character study like this. I'm genuinely excited for people to see this film and experience the director's vision of being socially awkward but wanting to be expressive on all topics. It's great fun. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema and the AMC River East theaters.

The Overnight star and producer Adam Scott will be doing post-screening Q&As on opening night, Friday, June 26 after the 7:10pm and 9:30pm shows at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. The following night, Saturday, June 27, Scott will do a Q&A after the 6:50pm show at AMC River East theaters.

To read my exclusive interview with The Overnight writer-director Patrick Brice and star Judith Godrèche, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Manglehorn

Wrapping up his thematically connected trilogy of works that examine the changing definition of masculinity in small Texas towns (following Prince Avalanche and Joe), director David Gordon Green enlists the legendary Al Pacino to play the aging locksmith A.J. Manglehorn, a man stuck in the past to such a degree that it keeps him from forming meaningful relationships in the present day with anyone but his cat. Using the opportunity to remind us that he can dial it back and inhabit a curious and troubling character, Pacino is the reason to see the film, even if some of Manglehorn's plot points don't all connect.

The film is essentially a series of conversations, which range from charming and sweet to awkward and painful to watch. Having spent decades pining over a failed relationship, Manglehorn finally gets the nerve to ask bank teller Dawn (Holly Hunter) on a date, but events leading up to the fateful night are distracting and distressing. His cat needs surgery, his estranged investment-banker son Jacob (Chris Messina) is in financial trouble, and a pimp named Gary (director Harmony Korine, shot out of a sleazy cannon), whom Manglehorn used to coach in little league, tries to lure him into one of his "tanning salons" for a good time.

With Nicolas Cage in Joe and now Pacino, Green has grown into a filmmaker who takes actors we know so well, we likely have an impersonation of them in our back pocket, and gives them a chance to remind us just how good they can be. These roles don't really remind us of ones these actors have done before, so it's not like Green is resorting to tapping into nostalgia to make his point that these performers have still got something great left in them. And when we finally get to the date sequence, Manglehorn is so preoccupied, it seemed fated that things will go horribly wrong, and the tension is soupy.

All of this being said and despite Pacino's exceptional work, Manglehorn is probably the weakest of the Green's Texas trilogy only because the stakes seem lower. If one crabby, self-obsessed old man leads the rest of his existence alone, is that such a tragedy? But Pacino gives us hints that there is potential for exceptional behavior in this man, even if he wasn't written that way (the screenplay is credited to first-time writer Paul Logan). A gesture with his son, a plea for a second chance with Dawn, and of course the gentle way he has with that darn cat. The capacity is there, but can he, will he make the effort? Green makes us care about the answer to that question. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Manglehorn director David Gordon Green.

A Little Chaos

Why this film isn't getting a wider release stateside is a mystery to me because it's one of the finest character studies I've seen in quite some time, loaded with wit, intrigue and more blue-blood behavior than you can powder a wig with. And even more delightful is that A Little Chaos was directed and co-written by the great actor Alan Rickman (whose previous directing effort, The Winter Guest, is well worth your time). Set in 17th-century France, Rickman plays Louis XIV, the king who oversaw the bulk of the building of Versailles, along with the help of landscape designer André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts, currently in Far From the Madding Crowd), who in turn seeks a creative force to help design a special structure in the garden that will resemble an unprecedented outdoor ballroom, eventually known as the Rockwork Grove.

Intrigued by the drawings of local gardener Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), Le Notre takes a chance on this commoner's artistic expression to put her in charge of a crew of men, who at first look down upon her for several reasons, chief among them that she's a woman. Sabine also suffers from bouts of paralyzing depression due to a traumatic event in her recent past that isn't difficult to guess, although the specific circumstances are truly awful.

The film makes it clear from the start that the only fact it claims is 100 percent true is that this garden at Versailles exists at all, so clear Rickman and his team are working to create the best cinema they can and not worry too much about the fact. That said, my favorite scene in A Little Chaos is an event that probably never happened. After the queen dies unexpectedly, Louis seeks solitude at Versailles. Sabine is working on her project when she stumbles upon the king without his fineries or wig on. Thinking this stranger is the royal gardener, she engages him on their mutual craft of landscaping, and the exchange takes several amusing and engaging turns.

It's the only scene in the film with only Winslet and Rickman, and you can almost feel the air around them get richer from having two such charming and note-perfect actors just share space together. It's like a great concert or dance recital, and when the scene concludes, you're almost ready to clap. The later scene in which they meet again in a larger group, and they must pretend they're meeting for the first time to keep up appearances, but the moment plays off their original encounter so beautifully, and by the end, all of the upper-crust types around them are in awe of this plainly dressed woman with messy hair who has so completely captured the king's attention (non-romantically, of course).

Although he's married to the wickedly jealous Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory), André is so moved by Sabine's work and mind that he begins to fall for her. Honestly, the film is so good, I'm not sure the love story really adds much to the occasion, but Schoenaerts is so dreamy with his long hair and exotic puppy dog eyes (he's Belgian) that I'm sure a certain portion of the audience will be just fine with a superfluous few minutes of kissyface.

A Little Chaos is paced to perfection, it deals with the intellectual side of design theory in a way that makes it clear and interesting, and it features some of the most stunning period costuming I've seen in quite some time. What's also fascinating is observing the interpersonal politics surrounding Sabine. Some of the elite (including Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, played by Stanley Tucci) are desperate to get to know her just because she's a new face in a court full of familiar ones. Others want to know her because they actually respect her as an artist. The film is packed with great observations like that, and it's well worth seeking out as it makes its way through the art-house circuit. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Infinitely Polar Bear

I don't consider myself a particularly politically correct kind of person. I don't wince when a comedian tells a seemingly off-color joke about any one group, mostly because, quite often, the joke teller is making a point about racism or sexism or some other form of prejudice or entitlement. But for whatever reason, I rarely find characters with mental illness in movies or television especially easy to laugh at or with. I don't have a history of it in my family or among my friends. I'm not offended by such portrayals; they just don't make me laugh as a rule (with certain exceptions, I'm sure, but I can't think of any). Granted, the long-on-the-shelf Infinitely Polar Bear is not a comedy, but it does often want us to find the manic-depressive behavior of Cam Stuart (played with a certain gusto by Mark Ruffalo) endearing or humorous; I found it neither, no matter how appealing I find Ruffalo as an actor.

Writer-director Maya Frobes based Polar Bear on experiences she had growing up with her father, so naturally I looked to the characters of Stuart's children (played beautifully by Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) for signs of how they responded to their father sometimes energetically positive, sometimes crushingly sad behavior. And not surprisingly, they often react with a mixture of confusion and fear, especially in the 18 months in the late 1970s when they live only with him in Cambridge while their mother Maggie (Zoe Saldana) goes to New York to get her MBA.

The moments in the film where Cam is attempting with a great deal of difficulty to learn how to balance his meds with his creative impulses, which can lead to interesting inventions and experiments around the house, but also explode into moments of panic and feeling trapped in their cramped apartment.

Making her living as a screenwriter on such works as "The Larry Sanders Show" and The Rocker, as well as contributing to the third Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie and the animated feature Monsters vs. Aliens, Forbes makes her directorial debut with Infinitely Polar Bear, and it bears the trappings of a filmmaker who trusts their actors a little too much to get the tone right. And with Ruffalo as your driving force, that's understandable. But as good as he is in spots in this piece, at other points, he's all over the place and its maddening and irritating to watch. Cam's refusal to really address his condition is doing real damage to his children and his marriage, and the film often treats his illness like an excessive quirk. For most of the film, I wanted to throttle him.

My other problem with the film is that Zaldana isn't in it enough. When she's around, the film is usually endearing and tolerable. She's not just a stabilizing force to Ruffalo's character; she re-energizes the entire film with an underlying cool that is impressive. It's too bad she's absent from large portions of the film. I certainly didn't hate the experience of watching Infinitely Polar Bear; I just wished I'd loved enough of it to recommend. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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