The Review: The rise and fall – and then stratospheric rise again – of Seth MacFarlane is one of the 21st century’s more surprising success stories. MacFarlane is practically a brand in his own right, with everything from the hour and a half of animation that now airs with his name on every Sunday night in the US to his acting career in the likes of Enterprise and Flash Forward to even his music career which has seen him singing at the Proms series and releasing a swing album. (Not many would have predicted that when Family Guy was originally cancelled after two seasons.) So a move into features seemed almost inevitable, but the subject he’s chosen a little less so, moving away from the family template that’s served him so well on each of his animated sitcoms and instead looking at the almost Peter Pan-esque story of a boy who couldn’t quite grow up. While the prologue shows us how Ted is magically wished to life, we’re quickly into adulthood, where Ted is still sharing a flat with his buddy John (Mark Wahlberg) and starting to become a thorn in the relationship of John and his long term girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). What will it take for John and Ted to finally grow up?
While he’s moved away from the character template to establish a modern day fairy tale, Ted is still closer to the Family Guy template than is practically useful. If you’ve never sampled Family Guy, then the template consists of a thinly stretched narrative, with repeated uses of cutaways to non-sequitur gags which actually provide the vast majority of the laughs. While these cutaways were often broad analogies of the main plot in earlier seasons, as time has gone on the random gags have gotten progressively less relevant, and also less funny, leaving Family Guy feeling even more tired than The Simpsons. (By contrast, another of the McFarlane stable, American Dad, doesn’t have any insert gags, so has to rely on the plot and the characters to drive the humour; it has gone from strength to strength in later seasons.) While Ted starts on the straight and narrow, it has increasing difficulty staying with the plot as the running time elapses, and there’s a faint whiff of desperation setting in by the final third.
If you have your Family Guy bingo card with you, though, expect to score big. Jaunty show-tune style score (from regular FG composer Walter Murphy)? Check? Procession of random celebrity cameos, only a couple of which actually work and one of which heavily outstays its welcome? Check. Extended violent fight scene between two characters that resolves nothing? Check. A smattering of laugh out loud moments surrounded by a collection of tired and predictable gags? Bingo. Ted does get credit for coming up with an original idea and seeing it through, but while it’s not an episode stretched to feature length, neither does it ever truly justify the running time.
What Ted does get right is the casting of its leads; Wahlberg and Kunis both have proven comedy chops and are a perfect match for the material and each other. MacFarlane has three main comedy voices and it’s the Peter Griffin variant in play here; all the fancy motion capture in the world can’t cover up the tired in-jokes (one of which, predictably, references Peter Griffin). It wouldn’t be fair to say that all of the laughs are in the trailer, but it would be fair to say that probably half of them are, and only a wordless cameo from a big name, Patrick Stewart’s shameless voiceover and a couple of jokes that successfully push the boundaries of taste will generate big laughs. If you’ve seen a lot of Seth MacFarlane’s other work, then Ted will feel as old as an antique teddy bear, and not half as loveable.
Why see it at the cinema: You might get lucky and see it with an audience that’s never seen Family Guy, or American Dad, or The Cleveland Show, or most modern, better, comedies. In which case they might well laugh, and that should help stimulate your funny bone.
The Score: 5/10
The Pitch: Swan Lake and Madness used to make me think only of this. Not any more…
The Review: At the time of year when awards are being handed out, it’s often useful to consider what qualities a great film embodies. When considering my favourite film of all time last year, I noted that Back To The Future was the master of many films, a science fiction / action / comedy / romance that did all types very well. It’s not a prerequisite for greatness, but if a film can straddle genres so successfully, then it stands a much better chance of being enjoyable. Black Swan is certainly a melding of many different concepts; it is on the surface a ballet film, and certainly the parallels with Swan Lake are clear and simple. Early on, ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) confidently tells everyone in his company that they all know the story of Swan Lake, then proceeds to explain it anyway for the benefit in the audience of anyone who might have come in cold. But this early scene with dancers rehearsing and generally milling in the foreground and background will leave you in no doubt of the context, and director Darren Aronofsky packs the film with ballet detail, from sessions at the physiotherapist to the rituals of preparing ballet shoes for the rigours of performance.
It’s also very much a character drama, and there a number of key players in this drama. The nexus of the drama, on screen almost constantly and into whose mindset we are drawn, is Nina (Natalie Portman), as she replaces Beth (Winona Ryder) at the centre of the ballet company and attempts to get into the dual mindset of the White and Black Swans at Swan Lake’s centre. Her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) guides her career, but may be holding her back as much as pushing her on, and her inhibited home live leads Thomas to encourage her to bond with tattooed rebel Lily (Mila Kunis) in order to explore both sides of her psyche. Lily is her exact opposite, almost her doppelgänger, and when Thomas makes Lily Nina’s understudy, her nervousness about the challenge begins to build into a full-blown psychosis.
Black Swan is effectively a coming of age drama, but this is no John Hughes movie; encouraged to the point of sexual harassment in his actions by Thomas, Nina transitions from the virginal and metaphorical White Swan to the dark side of her personality. Natalie Portman is completely fearless in her role, laying bare her emotions and being completely unafraid to explore the more sexual side of the role as well. (And when I say explore, let’s just say that When Harry Met Sally’s got nothing on this one where female vocalisation and inhibitions are concerned.) The whole cast is great, Hershey playing the overbearing mother to perfection and Cassel and Kunis also filling the roles well, but this is Portman’s movie and she slowly but surely takes ownership of the role and the film as it progresses. Aronofsky sees the parallels in the loss of innocence in adolescence as a parallel for Nina’s development and exploration, giving Portman plenty of meat to work with, and the psychosexual aspects add further layers to the drama and, indeed, the horror that form the core of the narrative.
For yes, this is as much a horror movie as anything else, and that will undoubtedly come as a shock to a certain part of the audience who’ve come for the ballet. The psychosexual tension simmers and occasionally bubbles, but there is psychological horror here as well as aspects of body horror that would seem to suggest Aronofsky could be a natural successor to David Cronenberg. It’s subtle and woven through the fabric of the film, and helps to ratchet up the tension at key points. There are parallels to the director’s previous work, and Aronofsky himself has quoted Polanski’s Repulsion, but if anything the film is most reminiscent at points of the Roger Moore film The Man Who Haunted Himself, as Nina sees herself reflected in the faces of those around her and starts to lose her grip on reality. The only criticism that could be levelled at the film is that it’s occasionally a little one note in tone, but what a note and what a tone. Fascinated with the idea of the double and the understudy as the usurper, Black Swan also has a mirror in almost every scene and is full of both physical and metaphorical reflection; when you come to reflect on Black Swan, you’ll realise that Darren Aronofsky and his cast have created something just a little unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, tense, theatrical, racy and provocative; allow your darker side out and it’ll have a fantastic time with this.
Why see it at the cinema: As communal audience experiences go, this one’s a belter; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, if you’re even slightly prudish you’ll feel very uncomfortable and between those lapping up all the melodrama and those in shock at getting a film they plainly weren’t expecting, there’s sure to be a buzz on the way out the door or at the pub afterwards. The subtle CG embellishments and sweeping stage scenes will be best appreciated on the largest screen you can find, so see it soon while it’s still on the main screens at your multiplex.
The Score: 9/10