Walt Disney Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
The end of the world isn’t nigh, for once, in “Ant-Man.”
Sure, there are stakes. This is a summer blockbuster, after all. It has to make us care about something of consequence. But the overwhelming, self-serious sense that we are watching something Very Important blissfully doesn’t exist in “Ant-Man.” It’s just plain fun: light, breezy, simple and enjoyable. Aside from the original “Iron Man” from 2008, which had the benefit of Robert Downey Jr. cracking wise in the title role for the first time, this is the most purely entertaining film yet from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It’s especially a joy to watch just a couple months after “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which was overloaded with characters, subplots, bad guys and twists. And yet, director Peyton Reed’s film, based on a script by a whole buncha people (including Edgar Wright, who initially was set to direct, and the film’s star, Paul Rudd), repeatedly reminds you that it is part of a larger Marvel world. The in-jokes and cameos from other characters and stories are amusing if you get them, but if you don’t, they’re not so prevalent or cutesy as to be off-putting. However meager “Ant-Man” may seem, it definitely functions as the glue between Marvel movies we’ve seen already seen and ones to come. Everything is of a piece within the MCU, of course — hence the tricky little teasers that come during the closing credits, which compel us to stay in our seats for a few moments longer rather than dashing off to the bathroom.
As the diminutive comic-book hero of the film’s title, Rudd is his usual, likable everyman, but he’s also charming enough to figure his way in and out of every situation. He’s not as flat-out funny, per se, as he has been traditionally in movies like “I Love You, Man” or “Knocked Up,” but that’s also not exactly his purpose here. This is a heist movie. He is a master thief — but a boyishly handsome and decent-hearted one. My good friend and What the Flick?! co-host Alonso Duralde suggested when we reviewed “Ant-Man” on the show that Rudd’s charisma is drained here as much as Chris Pratt’s is in “Jurassic World.” I’d say it’s not that bad. It’s just a different vibe from him: lower-key, but no less sharp.
When we first see Rudd’s Scott Lang, he’s being released from San Quentin State Prison (with a memorable send-off from his fellow inmates). He’s spent time behind bars for an elaborate and high-tech theft; now, he’s struggling to rebuild his life in San Francisco and prove to his ex-wife (Judy Greer in yet another thankless mom role) and young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) that he can be a reliable force for good in their lives.
The job he ends up taking, though, is one he never possibly could have expected. The brilliant professor Hank Pym (a touching and wise Michael Douglas, whom we first see as an uncanny, 1989 version of himself) wants Scott to break into his former headquarters and steal the magical shrinking serum he created to keep it from falling into the wrong hands: namely, those of his protege (an oily Corey Stoll), who once was full of promise but now is a greedy megalomaniac. You know, the usual. The heist requires Scott to wear the sleek and mercilessly snug suit and helmet Hank created and once wore himself long ago, which makes the inhabitant instantly tiny with the press of a button.
Hank recruits Scott to get in the suit, get small, get in and get out. But Hank’s daughter, the equally brilliant Hope (Evangeline Lilly), also wants a chance to prove she can be the ant and is willing to fight Scott, physically, for the right to climb inside the costume. Lilly gets to do little more here than spar disapprovingly with Rudd while wearing crisp suits and a sharp bob, and any kind of romantic connection the two characters might have is tenuous at best. But — spoiler, kinda — there is the suggestion that more is in store for Hope in the near future.
While the montages are amusing as Scott masters the art of size-shifting, with hit-and-miss results, the action sequences have a real zest and visual panache once he learns to work side by side with the various other high-tech ants Hank has trained. And once he really gets the hang of manipulating the suit and kicking all kinds of pint-size ass, his thrills are infectious. Reed might seem like an incredibly odd choice to direct an effects-laden summer blockbuster based on his filmography — “Bring It On,” “Down With Love,” “The Break-Up” — but he’s got a solid script to work from and he gets the pacing and comic timing just right. His staging of the film’s first actual break-in — at Hank’s house, actually — offers a clever bit of clockwork precision, and several sight gags provide scattered laughs throughout.
As part of the random supporting cast — which includes John Slattery, Bobby Cannavale and T.I. — the always-reliable Michael Pena co-stars as the friend who picks Scott up from prison and gives him a place to stay in the city. He may seem at first like an offensive Hispanic stereotype, but some slyly edited flashbacks reveal his cultured tastes and flesh him out. His character is a great example of what makes “Ant-Man” work so well: You may think you know where it’s going, but it keeps surprising you in ways both big and small.
“Trainwreck” is anything but. It’s a great showcase for Amy Schumer’s distinctive and biting comic voice, but it’s also an opportunity for her to explore unexpected dramatic range. And it’s the first Judd Apatow movie that’s ever made my cry. My RogerEbert.com review.
Rated PG for action and rude humor.
Running time: 91 minutes.
Two stars out of four.
We are a Minion-friendly household around here.
My 5-year-old son, Nicolas, loves the Minions so much, he thinks he actually IS one. We’ve been on the “Despicable Me” ride at Universal Studios more times than I can count. (It is kind of a blast, though.) We have Minion stuffed toys, Minion books, the “Minion Rush” iPad game, even Minion apple sauce (which tastes like tropical ba-na-nas).
So I was all in for “Minions,” a prequel to the “Despicable Me” movies, which explains the origins of these impish, yellow creatures and follows their quest to find the most evil villain to serve. It’s a clever idea, but it can only go so far before running out of steam. These guys are as silly and playful and hilariously inept as ever, but there’s not much to them. Fittingly, because they’re pill-shaped, the Minions work best in small doses.
The three goggle-eyed guys at the center of “Minions” — Kevin, Stuart and Bob — have distinct personalities, but there’s no “there” there to build an entire film around. And the super villain they work for this time doesn’t have the strength of character or the complexity of Steve Carell’s vaguely Eastern European baddie-turned-daddy, Gru.
I realize these are all the observations of a film critic, and a grown-ass person. Young kids, who truly are the target audience, won’t notice or care about any of this. They will laugh their heads off. Nicolas was cackling so hard, the veins in his neck were popping out. (His favorite part was when the three are stranded at sea and Stuart tries to eat Kevin in a hallucinatory fit of hunger.)
But first, we must go back to the dawn of time and the birth of the Minions. As Geoffrey Rush explains in a lengthy and amusing opening narration, the Minions have long sought to do the bidding of the baddest person they can find — although their earliest boss was a T. rex. Then there was a caveman, and Dracula, and Napoleon, but invariably, these crazy creatures screwed something up and had to move on. After decades of self-imposed exile in an ice cave — and the depression that resulted from a loss of purpose — one enterprising Minion, the tall and responsible Kevin, takes it upon himself to venture out and find a new big boss for the tribe to serve.
His traveling companions are the suave, ukelele-playing Stuart and the innocent, big-hearted Bob. Co-director Pierre Coffin voices all of these characters, as always, with a gibberishy mish-mosh of French, Spanish and who-knows-what. Words like “banana,” “papaya” and “pinata” appear frequently in their vocabulary, but I’ve gotta say, I understood a lot of what they were talking about.
After traveling over land and sea, they wind up in 1968 New York, and then in Orlando, Florida, for the annual Villain Con gathering of evildoers. (“Minions” just happens to be hitting theaters the same weekend Comic-Con is going on in San Diego. Coincidence?) There, they connect with the world’s first female super villain, the coifed and polished Scarlet Overkill, voiced with perky menace by Sandra Bullock. She’s entertaining at first, but eventually reveals herself to be shrill, one-note and off-putting as she unleashes her devious plan to steal Queen Elizabeth II’s crown and take over England. (Jon Hamm provides the voice of her mod husband and henchman, Herb Overkill.)
Journeying across the Atlantic leads to a bunch of really easy jokes about British culture, but also an impressive soundtrack of great ’60s hits by The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and more. (The makers of “Minions” spent an insane amount of money on music including, of course, Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.”)
Kevin, Stuart and Bob bumble and stumble their way through it all in their usual slapsticky fashion. But in retrospect, I can’t really recall a single joke or sight gag or action sequence that stands out above all the rest. Coffin and co-director Kyle Balda’s film, written by Brian Lynch, just kind of chugs along until it reaches its explosive conclusion, and then it ends. It’s cute. It’s OK. But it’s never great.
Your kids will probably love it, though. And you’ll wish you were watching “Inside Out” for the second time instead.
Rated R for strong and disturbing sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, and drug use.
Running time: 88 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
“Tangerine” is a great Los Angeles movie and a great indie and a great reminder of the possibilities of creativity during a time when everything is a sequel or a reboot or a comic-book spectacle.
The superheroes of Sean Baker’s film are fascinating, deeply flawed and outrageously funny. They are black transgender prostitutes, played by transgender actresses, and their mishaps and misadventures play out over a single day in a specific section of Hollywood. But what helps give Baker’s film a bracing sense of intimacy and immediacy is the fact that he shot it entirely on an iPhone camera. All of these elements added up might make “Tangerine” sound like a parody of an arthouse film — not unlike this year’s provocative “The Tribe,” a two-plus-hour drama about deaf students at a Ukrainian school, told entirely through sign language without subtitles.
But the use of this technology gives “Tangerine” a thrilling, fly-on-the-wall feeling — or, rather, a fly on the sidewalk. We are with these women every breathless step of the way as they pound the pavement in their neighborhood on Christmas Eve, visiting cheap restaurants, run-down strip malls, a seedy motel, a drag bar and a Laundromat. (And, miraculously, Baker and his team have made a movie about L.A. that’s totally accurate geographically. His characters walk in the right direction when they have a specific destination and travel on the right bus and subway lines, even getting off at the right stops. This third-generation Angeleno appreciates such attention to detail, because when this sort of thing is wrong, it’s totally distracting.)
First, though, we meet Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), at their headquarters: the Donut Time at the corner of Santa Monica and Highland in Hollywood. (I can attest that Baker completely captures the colorful, ragtag vibe of this part of town; my son went to school two blocks up from Donut Time for the past three years.) Sin-Dee has just served a 28-day prison sentence, which should be reason to celebrate. But Alexandra accidentally informs her that her pimp/boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone, very funny in one wildly explosive late scene), has been cheating on her while she’s been behind bars. Adding insult to injury: He was messing around with a girl named Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), who happens to be white and anatomically female.
This sends Sin-Dee into a tizzy, an early indication of the intriguing contradictions Baker plans to explore in the script he co-wrote with Chris Bergoch. These are not nice women. These aren’t necessarily decent-hearted women. “Tangerine” has no interest in depicting these transgender characters as saints, martyrs or victims, but rather as real people: complicated, vulnerable, insecure, selfish and sometimes obnoxious. Their banter is lively, profane and infectious. Rodriguez and Taylor have such tremendous chemistry, they never make these women seem like flamboyant caricatures, but rather fully-formed human beings whose lives we’ve stepped into for the day.
Their dynamic consists of the brash Sin-Dee storming from place to place, pestering people for information about Chester’s whereabouts (and usually insulting them in the process), with the sophisticated Alexandra calmly tidying up after her and passing out flyers for her performance later that night at Hamburger Mary’s, a gay mainstay in the heart of West Hollywood.
A parallel storyline increasingly becomes intertwined with theirs. It follows an Armenian cabbie named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) as he drives around the neighborhood looking for fares. At first it seems as if the character merely exists to break up the moments between Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s antics, but his involvement eventually becomes clearer. A climactic showdown with his family — including his mother-in-law, wife and young child — goes way over the top, but Razmik is a great example of how there’s more than meets the eye with all these characters.
As the sun goes down and the hunt goes on, the possibilities for artistry with the iPhone camera reveal themselves in beautiful and surprising ways. The sky turns a deep and radiant orange, followed by cool purples, vibrantly capturing what a strangely hot and dry place L.A. can be at Christmastime. By comparison, though, the squalor of a drug den in a sleazy motel room is startlingly vivid.
After all the film’s raunchiness, profanity and abuse, though, “Tangerine” ends on an unexpectedly poignant note. The last shot is gorgeous and sweet and heartfelt — the perfect counterpoint to everything that came before it, and a moment of genuine emotion (and rare quiet) that feels earned.
Rated R for language and drug material.
Running time: 128 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
There’s a scene toward the end of “Amy,” the documentary about the dizzyingly quick rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, that provides a glimmer of hope, even though we’re constantly aware that her demise is inevitable.
It’s the night of the 2008 Grammy Awards, where the singer-songwriter would go on to win five prizes. She’s not at the ceremony itself, but rather at a private party back home in London, watching the glittering spectacle play out at 2 a.m. local time. Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole are reading off the nominees for Record of the Year, including her megahit “Rehab,” inspired by her struggles with substance abuse and her reluctance to get clean. When Bennett announces she’s won — her idol, of all the people in all the world — she stands on stage wide-eyed, stunned and speechless, perhaps for the first time in her life.
In this moment, Winehouse radiates a girlish giddiness, an innocence, similar to what we saw of her in home movies at the film’s start. You can just imagine a thought bubble over her head screaming: “OMG!!! Tony Bennett said my name!!!” And you can imagine what drew her to music in the first place. There’s a purity in her reaction and an irresistible sense of humanity. Yes, she’s a superstar, but also a music fan, just like us, first and foremost.
But soon afterward, there’s a return to her harsh reality, as was so often the case throughout the highs and lows of Winehouse’s life. One of her lifelong friends recalls Winehouse confiding in her backstage that night that she didn’t know how to be — that winning five Grammys without drugs was no fun.
And suddenly, the poppy, catchy “Rehab” — the tune that catapulted this working-class Jewish girl from North London to the kind of worldwide fame she never wanted — sounds like the saddest song ever written. Three years later, she’d be dead, the ravages of alcohol and drug abuse on her tiny body finally taking their toll at the magically tragic age 27.
First, though, we get to know that girl, whose charisma, musical gifts and singular style were evident from an early age, even while doing something as simple as singing “Happy Birthday to You” to one of her best friends at age 13.
Director Asif Kapadia had a wealth of archival footage to pull from; Winehouse happened to grow up in an era when cameras, and later smart phones, were cheap and ubiquitous. Similar to his 2011 documentary “Senna” — about another highly talented figure who enjoyed a brief but brilliant career, Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna — he weaves it all together in impressionistic wisps. Kapadia doesn’t rely on the typical talking heads, but rather provides glimpses into a life, with new interviews with friends and colleagues providing audio context.
The result is a mesmerizing yet devastating look at a singular talent. It’s an indictment, to be sure, of the people closest to her who enabled and exploited her, but also a heartbreaking reminder of what a gifted performer Winehouse was.
Editor Chris King seamlessly mixes home movies, behind-the-scenes video, stage performances and candid moments — everything from the mundane to the sublime, woven together through Winehouse’s music and often the lyrics themselves, which appear on screen before wafting away. It’s a powerful device because Winehouse wrote in such honest and vivid fashion about her life, her struggles, her mistakes. Hearing songs like “You Know I’m No Good” and “Love Is a Losing Game” is one thing. Seeing the words provides an emotionally raw road map to her eventual destruction.
First, though, we get the joy of seeing her in the early days, when she was a teenager with talent beyond her years. She was an old soul, clearly, but also an irrepressible and playful flirt. She knew how to work a room. She was magnetic. It’s also kind of fun to see her signature style evolve over the years from just a ponytail and eyeliner to the full-on tats, teased-up coif and retro-chic wardrobe.
It’s clear early on, as she’s writing, performing and recording more often and building an audience, that she’s doing it for the love of music and feels uncomfortable with the prospect of megafame. She’s funny, brash and intriguingly flawed, but also quite insecure, bulimic and prone to toxic, co-dependent relationships with men.
Two prime villains emerge. One is her father, Mitch Winehouse, who abandoned the family for another woman when Winehouse was 9 but returned once she achieved fame. He’s the inspiration behind the line: “I ain’t got the time/And if my daddy thinks I’m fine,” in “Rehab”; he wanted her out on the road, making money, rather than getting the help she clearly needed. Once she did get out of one of many stints in rehab, and sought peace with a few close friends on St. Lucia, Mitch Winehouse tellingly brought along a reality-show camera crew to document his supposed involvement in her rejuvenation. (Also tellingly, the family has disassociated itself with “Amy,” calling it inaccurate.)
The other is Blake Fielder-Civil, her on-again, off-again boyfriend and husband who hooked her not just on his love but on the drugs that eventually would kill her. One of the most frustrating parts of watching “Amy” is seeing her take Fielder-Civil back after the massive success of “Back to Black” — an album whose lyrics blister and burn with the heartache she suffered when he left her the first time. If there is any flaw to this beautiful film, it’s that it doesn’t quite connect the dots as to how all these reconciliations occurred.
Other men in her life are far more supportive, including her first manager, Nick Shymansky, and Mark Ronson, who produced “Back to Black.” Their love and respect for her talent — and their sense of grief — shine through. Even fleeting colleagues and friends have illuminating insights; The Roots’ drummer, Questlove, recalls what a hardcore geek Winehouse was for jazz and how she’d consistently stump him with the selections she’d share with him, even though he considers himself an aficionado.
Whether you’re a serious fan or merely knew her music in passing, “Amy” will make you see the woman and the artist through fresh, sad eyes.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for strong sexual content, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
The abs are tight in the sequel “Magic Mike XXL” — and the pecs, and the thighs, and the asses — but the movie itself has a loose, shaggy vibe that has an appeal all its own.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: The male stripping sequences are hot. (If you’re into that kind of thing, that is. I’d probably react the way Amber Heard’s character does on stage during the movie’s splashy finale: just giggly and incredulous.) Much of the film’s joy comes from seeing it in a packed theater — all the better to laugh and squeal alongside hundreds of other straight women and gay men reveling in the spectacle of it all. It’s raining men, again, hallelujah.
But in between the bumping and grinding and shedding of clothing, the story meanders a bit. It takes its time. It’s a road trip movie with plenty of stops along the way for talking and learning and — shockingly — actual growth from its characters, and not just physically. When Steven Soderbergh directed the original “Magic Mike” from 2012 — a surprise smash hit that made over $167 million worldwide — he was fascinated by the minutiae of these strippers’ (er, male entertainers’) lives. He lingered over the mundane details of their daily routine like weightlifting and thong shopping.
Soderbergh’s longtime first assistant director, Gregory Jacobs, gets the chance to direct the sequel, but the interest in process remains: where these guys get their inspiration, how they put together their routines, and most importantly, how they find their voices. Corny as it may sound, “Magic Mike XXL” is about a search for identity. Not to get all Oprah on you, but it’s about finding your purpose in life.
If you’re not a fireman or a police officer or a cowboy beneath those breakaway pants, then who are you, really? This is the central question of “Magic Mike XXL.”
Reid Carolin once again has written the script, and Soderbergh has shot and cut it using his usual pseudonyms, but this is a very different movie in a lot of ways from the original — starting with the absence of Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the dancers’ spark and spiritual guide. (Alex Pettyfer, as The Kid who became Channing Tatum’s protege, also is gone). But maybe going in a different direction isn’t such a bad thing. In following up a couple of massive hits this year, “Pitch Perfect 2” and, to a certain extent, “Ted 2” played it safe by offering us nearly the exact same movie all over again. This at least dares to set its own tone, and risks being not as obviously crowd-pleasing and adored.
“Magic Mike XXL” picks up three years later, with Tatum’s titular character living in Florida and fulfilling his dream of running his own custom furniture company. When he gets the call from his fellow Kings of Tampa, asking him to join them as they journey to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the annual Male Strippers Convention (and there is such a thing), he’s initially apprehensive. But one night, working in his shop, the beat of a hip-hop tune takes hold of him — and this is the first of the movie’s many giggle-and-gawk moments. If you’ve seen the original “Step Up” or the first “Magic Mike,” you know what a gifted dancer Tatum is — muscular, yet effortless. The moves he busts out are modern, yet the spontaneity behind them makes this scene feel like something out of an old-fashioned musical.
And so he says yes to Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), pretty boy Ken (Matt Bomer), the hulking Tarzan (Kevin Nash) and the smooth Tito (Adam Rodriguez) for that tried-and-true one last show. They all hop into Tito’s traveling frozen yogurt truck with buddy Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) behind the wheel and head north. Along the way, they vogue at an amateur drag show, amuse a sad convenience store cashier (with a truly inspired use of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”) and party with strangers on the beach, including an unusually understated Heard as a photographer in flux. (Soderbergh lights the exchange between Tatum and Heard really daringly, though, with bold use of nighttime darkness to accentuate their eyes and cheekbones.)
But the most crucial stop of all happens in Savannah, Georgia, when they visit an old flame of Mike’s: the beautiful and fierce Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), who now runs a members-only strip club for women inside an opulent, historic home. She addresses her clientele as queens, and preaches that they should have whatever they want from men, from life. You can practically see the light bulb go on over all these guys’ heads as they watch hugely charismatic performers — including Donald Glover, who seduces through song, and Stephen “tWitch” Boss from “So You Think You Can Dance” — work real magic on the swooning crowd. These guys are actually paying attention to women’s needs, not just preening. Pinkett Smith is just as magnetic as the men on stage, and she commands a room just as powerfully despite her petite frame.
And before they reach their final destination, they also enjoy an oddly lovely interlude with Andie MacDowell as a flirtatious divorcee entertaining her fellow middle-aged pals in her elegant Southern home. It’s a nice nod to Soderbergh’s groundbreaking debut, “sex, lies and videotape,” and it gives MacDowell a chance to play the total opposite of her demure character in that film without devlving into cliched cougardom.
Finally, they hit Myrtle Beach, where Elizabeth Banks makes a slyly charming appearance as the convention’s drawling coordinator. All these women shape Mike as his buddies for the better. And while their eventual, climactic performance is insanely over-the-top (with rather ridiculous production values, given the short notice), it comes from a heartfelt place.
Maybe “Magic Mike XXL” is secretly a romance after all.
Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the role that made him a superstar over 30 years ago in this fifth installment in the “Terminator” franchise. It’s amusing at first, but “Terminator Genisys” turns unfortunately jokey and self-referential, to the point that it borders on parody. Ah-nuld finally has become McBain. My two-star RogerEbert.com review.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements.
Running time: 111 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
“Max” is a strange beast.
It is, in theory, a family-friendly movie about courage and friendship, with a brave and handsome military search dog at its center. Who doesn’t like dogs? What could possibly go wrong?
In reality, though, “Max” is an absurdly violent PG-rated movie in which kids and dogs are repeatedly in peril — and often the potential targets for gunfire. There’s also death in the line of duty, a family’s mourning, a weapons-smuggling ring involving bad guys from both sides of the Mexican border, a kidnapping, a near drowning and some massive explosions. At one point, my 5 1/2-year-old son, Nicolas — who loves dogs and goes out of his way to say hi to every single one he sees in our neighborhood — turned to me during the screening and said: “This movie is too violent.”
He was right — and in retrospect, Nic was too young for “Max.” But beyond the potentially frightening material, director and co-writer Boaz Yakin’s film is just a weird hodgepodge of themes and plot threads.
It’s an earnestly patriotic movie about sacrifice for one’s country, clearly aimed at conservative, Christian audiences. But it also features a character who’s way too willing to share classified information with a teenager. It has its heartwarming moments and even some thrilling ones, as that teenager and the dog learn to work together, trust each other and share spirited adventures. But it’s also about overcoming racial prejudices and owning up to oft-repeated untruths.
It’s also just not very good — and no amount of swelling, inspiring music can convince you otherwise.
Yakin (“Remember the Titans”), working from a script he co-wrote with Sheldon Lettich, veers between all these heavy ideas in ungainly fashion for the film’s nearly-two-hour running time. But he begins with the wholesome image of Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell from “The DUFF”), a good-looking Marine and dog handler who’s been deployed to Afghanistan, enjoying a Skype chat with his parents back home in small-town East Texas. His father, Ray (a glum and gruff Thomas Haden Church), is a Marine veteran himself who suffered a debilitating leg injury during Desert Storm. (Strangely, despite the frequent mention of the leg, we don’t see it a single time.) His mother, Pamela (a sadly understated and underused Lauren Graham), is the family’s dutiful and God-fearing matriarch.
But Kyle’s younger brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins), has no interest in chatting. He’d rather play video games about war, then bootleg them for his friends for profit. He’s so sick of being compared to his superstar older brother that he’s gone out of his way to be as different — and underachieving — as possible. Surely, some life lessons are in store for this wayward young man.
They come early, in one of the movie’s many multi-hanky moments, when Kyle is killed under mysterious circumstances in battle. At his funeral, Max — the brave and highly trained Belgian Malinois who’d been his constant, trusty companion — bursts through the back door of the church, stands on his hind legs to whimper over Kyle’s American flag-draped coffin, then lies down loyally on the ground in front of it.
But as Max’s trainer at the base (Jay Hernandez) informs the family, this brilliant dog refuses to respond to anyone anymore and might have to be euthanized. Cosmically, though, he has a connection with Justin. At first, the disaffected teen has zero interest in helping, until the all-night barking and whimpering become too much to bear. Justin learns to retrain Max with the aid of his good friend, the sassy Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), and Chuy’s brash and beautiful cousin, Carmen (Mia Xilali), who’s been around dogs all her life. This is the section in which “Max” really hits its stride, with the three kids working together and forming a heartwarming bond with a beautiful creature.
But soon, the movie veers off course into some strange and dangerous territory, as Justin and his pals suspect Kyle’s longtime friend and fellow Marine, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), is up to no good. Tyler’s secret meetings in the woods with leather-clad baddies are a sure sign, as are the drooling, growling Rottweilers accompanying these men. (Max finds himself brawling with these muscular canines a couple times to protect Justin and his friends, which is extremely hard to watch.) Suddenly this warmly old-fashioned, kid-adventure movie has turned into something much colder and darker.
If there’s any useful lesson to come out of “Max,” it’s that dogs can suffer fron post-traumatic stress disorder, too. In one of the film’s more artful and emotionally effective sequences, Max paces about nervously in his backyard crate as multicolored July 4th fireworks explode overhead. In one of many sensitive moments from Wiggins, Justin finds the heart to climb inside and soothe him.
It’s a rare and cutting bit of truth in a movie that’s too-often smothered in nostalgic Americana.
Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, and some drug use.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.
If you liked the original “Ted,” Seth MacFarlane’s 2012 surprise smash about a pot-smoking, potty-mouthed teddy bear, then you will probably like “Ted 2.” It is essentially the exact same movie, and more — and less.
As director, co-writer and star, MacFarlane offers a lot of the same kind of brash and ballsy humor that is his trademark. Nothing is off limits. No one is spared. So if you have a problem with a slapsticky pratfall involving scads of semen, followed by a wildly inappropriate joke about sickle cell anemia, followed by a crass Kardashian reference (and it’s a loooong way to go for that punchline), then you should probably look elsewhere.
I’ll admit, I laughed at that joke — and at a lot of the jokes in “Ted 2” — but I’m also a longtime fan of MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” for its energy, daring, rapid-fire pop-culture references and a willingness to go anywhere for a gag. (Our child can recite, verbatim, the entire Brian and Stewie “Cool Whip” exchange. We’re good parents.)
Along with fellow screenwriters and frequent collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, MacFarlane throws a lot of stuff at the wall. Not all of it sticks. But when it does stick, it works like crazy. As in his television work and the original “Ted,” some of the best bits here are the random non sequiturs, flashbacks and fantasy sequences. My favorite joke in the whole movie involves Ted and his human best friend, John (Mark Wahlberg), going to an improv comedy club to yell depressing suggestions to the performers on stage. It’s a clever and bizarre idea, well-executed.
Having said that, “Ted 2” is also overlong, repetitive and self-indulgent. In trying to offer a substantial dramatic plot line about civil rights alongside the raunchy comedy, its reach exceeds its grasp. And as in last summer’s ambitious failure “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “Ted 2” makes you wish there were someone around to rein MacFarlane in and hone his instincts. There’s a brisk and irresistible 95-minute movie somewhere in here, but as is so often the case, MacFarlane cannot contain his excesses, and it seems there’s no one around him who can stop them, either.
The delightful wrongness of the central premise remains strong, however. Ted (whom MacFarlane voices in a thick, New England accent identical to Peter Griffin’s) has married his girlfriend, gum-chomping grocery cashier Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). But John is now divorced from his wife (Mila Kunis, unseen here), and in no time, Ted is having marital troubles of his own.
He and Tami-Lynn make the always-wise decision to have a baby to save the union, but since Ted is a teddy bear, he lacks the equipment to impregnate her. When trying to find a sperm donor fails to work — including a truly uncomfortable visit to Tom Brady’s house in the middle of the night in one of the film’s many celebrity cameos — they try to adopt. But then that doesn’t work either when Massachusetts state officials decide that Ted isn’t an actual person, but rather a piece of property.
This leads John and Ted to seek the help of young, up-and-coming lawyer (and fellow stoner) Sam L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried), who agrees to work pro bono to prove that Ted is indeed a person. Sam doesn’t know who Samuel L. Jackson is — and doesn’t get any pop-culture reference these guys throw at her — because she actually studied and immersed herself in the classics and didn’t waste her youth sitting on her ass on the couch watching bad television. MacFarlane’s detractors often accuse him of misogyny, but as was the case with Charlize Theron’s character in “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” Seyfried’s character is the smartest and most capable person in the room at all times. Forcing her into a romantic subplot with Wahlberg’s John seems needless, but Seyfried is game for whatever comes her way.
Despite her comic abilities, though, Seyfried is also stuck with some of the heavier material, especially in long, droning courtroom scenes that seriously bog down the film’s momentum. MacFarlane may try to enliven some of these moments with a spontaneous song or a profane outburst, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this kind of meaty writing — this desire to Say Something Important — is beyond him and his team. Connections to civil rights fights throughout history, harkening all the way to the atrocities of slavery, seem poorly planned and tenuous. Maybe he’s aiming for satire, but he never truly hits his mark.
But wait, there’s more. “Ted 2” features another subplot in which Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), the creepy dad from the original “Ted,” tries to kidnap the bear at New York Comic-Con to present him to the head of Hasbro (John Carroll Lynch) as the basis for mass production. Nothing in this story line is ever funny or suspenseful; it could have been jettisoned entirely.
“Ted 2” begins in much more lively and promising fashion than its eventual ending, however, with a wedding-themed, Busby Berkeley-style production number during the opening titles that’s beautifully choreographed and hugely entertaining. As in the first film, the integration of this computer-generated creature in a live-action setting is seamless. This is yet another sign that MacFarlane needs to make an old-school musical next — and hopefully if he does, he’ll invite some seasoned folks to help him make his ideas truly sing.