August 2, 2012 5:17 pm

Bear story of very little brain

This week’s new film releases reviewed: ‘Ted’, ‘London: The Modern Babylon’, ‘Undefeated’, ‘The Flowers of War’ and ‘A Simple Life’
The bear in ‘Ted’ is voiced by writer-director Seth MacFarlane

The bear in ‘Ted’ is voiced by writer-director Seth MacFarlane

Rude, crude and lewd. We don’t expect our teddy bears to be like that, but foul language, weed smoking and promiscuous sex are all in a day’s work/play for the title creature in Ted. Medium-funny at the press show, the film will probably be funnier if you go with a beer, a friend or perhaps – who knows? – your own dissolute soft toy companion.

Writer-director Seth MacFarlane comes from television’s adult animation sector; he makes the hit shows American Dad! and Family Guy. He now attempts a hit on filmgoers, fitfully mugging them by means of slacker-bachelor Mark Wahlberg’s loutish, never-grown-up relationship with the stuffed teddy he wished into life years before as a child. (Think of Aloysius, the cuddly toy bear in Brideshead Revisited, and tear its image into iconoclastic shreds.)

This isn’t the South Park movie, nor even Beavis and Butt-head Do America. As a TV comedy creator gone big, MacFarlane demonstrates little satirical intelligence and less variety. The drugs, slapstick and volleys of friendly obscenity are blind-ordered by the script, as if by a web-shopper with a hangover. The slightly better news is that Ted, voiced by MacFarlane himself, has a glint of promise for better sequels. You could call him the bear kingdom’s answer to Seth Rogen, a rotund sweetie temporising as a slob, while Wahlberg’s gift for smart-witted perplexity we know from The Other Guys. Here unfortunately the duo is attached to a rom-com subplot like a prisoner to a ball, shuffled around the prison yard by Mila Kunis as Wahlberg’s girlfriend, who wants her man to grow up and shed the Ted.

Will she get her way? Will Wahlberg cast off the bear as Hal cast off Falstaff? America in general, and Hollywood in particular, are usually so good at being un-grown-up we wonder why they go through these self-mortification cycles. Forget it, we want to say. Even the love of a good woman, dear USA, won’t help you become adult. Just stick with what you’re good at – overgrown-kid impiety – and do it better next time.

3 stars



I am flabbergasted by the archive-trawling work that must have gone into Julien Temple’s London: the Modern Babylon. Did he sit up all night for a year with a hot towel and superpowered coffees? A tribute to the city’s history since the birth of photographic record (from horse-drawn carriages to Diamond Jubilee), the two-hour montage must have been assembled from a million or a zillion sources. Dozens of feature films and pop videos, hundreds of newsreels and home movies, thousands of still photos; and on the soundtrack a conquering army of songs and soundbites, collecting fresh recruits as it marches across time.

The film is as awesome as a Taj Mahal built of matchsticks, and some detractors might say as pointless. Documentarist Temple (The Filth and the Fury), unlike Derek Jarman or Terence Davies, whose Liverpool film Of Time and the City was a brilliantly focused social-history kaleidoscope, has no evident viewpoint. The apparent theme is the contribution to London of immigrants, artists, rebels and other “outsiders”. But any grist will do for the mill, from the siege of Sidney Street to the Sex Pistols, from the suffragettes to the Brixton riots, and Temple doesn’t add cogency with moments of waggish “satire”. Is it legitimate in this history-chronicling context (however funky) to re-dub Mrs Thatcher’s maiden prime-ministerial words on the Number 10 doorstep so that she says, “Where there is hope, may we bring despair . . . ”?

The achievement is still gobsmacking. The length, the breadth, the depth of archive research. There are challenging facts to chew on – did you know 300 languages are spoken across London, more than anywhere else at any time? – and fine frenzies of editing that suggest a time-lapse unfolding of a city’s destiny, as enthralling and miraculous as that of a flower. This isn’t the cinema’s last word on London, but it will silence competitors for a few years to come.

4 stars



Undefeated
, an American film about college football, won the Best Documentary Oscar. Why? Because it is a shameless piece of cheerleading and tear-leading about the dreams of sporting hopefuls. Think of Hoop Dreams and extract all intellectual content. The Motion Picture Academy, presented with fact gift-wrapped by the feelgood, is a pushover. Some stories here are compelling: OC, the tub of muscle who must locate a brain cell to pass his college exams; “Money”, the injured prodigy desperate to play the season’s climactic match; Chavis, whose tinderbox temperament may fire up the team or incinerate it.

Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s film is often riveting like a traffic accident, or like the scenes of extremity gathered around one. Should we look on, or respect private grief, as people keep bursting into tears? They even include the coach Bill Courtney, a roly-poly martinet with a homily for all occasions and a knack for screaming “Character!” at the team, at eardrum-perforating volume, when it falters. A watchable movie, no question. But perhaps best filed under guilty pleasures.

3 stars



There is a truth universally acknowledged. Most products in your shopping basket today are made in China, including the rubbish ones. Zhang Yimou is a one-time cinematic genius (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou) and acclaimed Olympics gala director (the Danny Boyle d’antan). So what happened? The Flowers of War is the “true story” – how I love that term for maudlin make-believe in which a molecule of fact has been dropped like vermouth into a martini – about Chinese convent-school girls imperilled by the Japanese.

Place: Nanking. Date: 1937. Christian Bale plays, with spirit if not finesse, the drunken British mortician who turns courageous to attempt their rescue. Apparently the Japanese army respected white westerners (tell that to the men on the Burma Railway), so Bale can cajole, play for time and use the decoy attraction of a group of helpful local prostitutes. Offered the opportunity for heroism one hooker says: “I will thank you in ways you can never imagine.” Bale: “Can I get an advance?” It is the only glimpse of wit in a script that largely plays like The Sound of Music without songs; except that at the end we get those too.

2 stars



I wish I liked Ann Hui’s praised-by-some A Simple Life more, or even a little. Here is another noted Chinese veteran (Boat People) bidding to extend her shelf life. A shelf, though, is where this tale belongs: the truth-based account – here we go again – of a long-serving housemaid tended into retirement and final illness by a loving, generous, insightful master based on the film’s producer Roger Lee. (No, seriously. It is his story.) Deanie Ip won the Venice Film Festival Best Actress award for suffering nobly and interminably. Hong Kong hyper-star Andy Lau plays the master. The early dialogue is promisingly oddball, at least as English-subtitled. He: “It’s ages since I had ox tongue.” She: “You want more angioplasty?” (The ghost of NF Simpson went to Hong Kong?) After that, all is earnest glow and slowly progressing torpor, like a dying nuclear fuel rod.

2 stars

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Life & Arts on Twitter

More FT Twitter accounts