Friday, July 27, 2012

Take a trip to 'La Mancha'

The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company’s 42nd season continues with a smashing and thoroughly engaging production of “Man of La Mancha,” which opened Tuesday, July 24, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. and is playing through Aug. 4.

Based on Miguel de Cervantes’s classic 17th century novel “Don Quixote,” “Man of La Mancha,” by Dale Wasserman with lyrics by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh, first appeared on Broadway in 1965.

The show has a story frame in which a fictionalized version of Cervantes (Larry Daggett) is thrown into a prison to await trial by the Inquisition. Cervantes’ fellow prisoners have their own trial for him and accuse him of being an idealist.

To defend his case he acts out the story of Don Quixote, a simple man who has read so many tales of chivalry that he has driven himself mad and created a fantasy world in which he is a knight. Cervantes asks those around them to fill parts as needed.

In the play-within-a-play, Quixote is joined by his loyal squire Sancho Panza (Patrick Michael Valley) in his courageous quest. Their journey brings them to an inn that Quixote believes is a castle. There Quixote meets Aldonza (Leah Monzillo), a tavern wench that Quixote sees as his virtuous Dulcinea. He shows her tenderness for the first time in her life and she doesn’t know how to accept it.

The plot also features family members trying to convince Quixote of his true identity, which leads to one of the show’s musical highlights “I’m Only Thinking of Him.” The song features complex, overlapping vocals provided by Jennifer Lauren Brown and Liz Wasser. The song also establishes one of musical’s key themes of whether bursting Quixote’s bubble is what is truly best for him.

“Don Quixote” was originally written as a satire of chivalrous adventure stories. Written in two parts, the first was farce, but the second was more serious and bleak with Quixote seen as a madman who was cruelly ridiculed.

“Man of La Mancha” explores these two sides of Cervantes’ work with a light and fun beginning giving way to a darker second half. There is a brutal rape scene that director Richard Sabellico doesn’t shy away from. It is difficult to watch, but necessary in bringing the show’s message across.

Sabellico’s direction throughout is superb and filled with interesting choices enhanced by the lighting design by Victoria Miller. Music director George Wiese has gotten the cast to an exceptionally high level of quality. The set designed by Kenneth John Verdugo and costume design by Barbara Erin Delo effectively creates the 17th century atmosphere.

Daggett is fantastic in the dual role of Cervantes and Quixote. He makes both characters distinct. His Quixote is full of bravado and performed with a Shakespearean quality. He has a rich and powerful voice and he sings with a conviction appropriate for the stubborn, strong willed Quixote. He makes the show’s most famous song, “The Impossible Dream” moving and powerful.

It is also a very physical performance with his impassioned and sincere stare getting across that Quixote means everything he says. Daggett makes it easy to see why those around Quixote would like him in spite of his seeming madness.

Valley provides strong support and comic relief as Sancho. Daggett and Valley have a nice comedic chemistry that is played effectively low key instead of for broad, easy laughs. Valley makes the best of his one song “I Like Him.” He sings the song with a good balance of warmth and humor.

Monzillo nicely captures Aldonza ‘s cynical, bitter edge. There’s a caustic anger to her performance that shines on songs like “It’s All the Same,” which showcase her powerful vocals. It is also a subtle performance as she slowly begins to embrace Quixote’s worldview as her own.

The three leads are supported by a well rounded cast. The inn is populated by The Muleteers, a group of rough men, who never the less sing the sweet “Little Bird, Little Bird.” This song later gets a dark, sinister reprise.

Todd Fenstermaker is fun in the dual role of the “governor” of the jail and the innkeeper. As the innkeeper he takes a shine to Quixote and takes pleasure in participating in his fantasies even when they turn aggravating. Playing against type, Craig Holden, who starred as Quixote in 2009 for Arts in Motion, makes an impression as the cruel Pedro and Jake Levitt is funny as a barber.

“Man of La Mancha” is ultimately a funny and moving show with an important message. In a world that is unfair, no one’s dream, however absurd, should be squashed.

For more information or tickets call 356-5776 or visit

'Moonrise' a sweet exploration of young love

In "Moonrise Kingdom," Wes Anderson, the quirky filmmaker of such films as "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Darjeeling Limited," heads to summer camp for a sweet, melancholy exploration of young love.

The film is set in 1965 on isolated island off the coast of New England. As "Moonrise Kingdom" opens Sam (Jared Gilman), a camper at a boy scout camp, has gone AWOL to meet up with Suzy (Kara Hayward), a girl he met the previous summer. Through year-long letter correspondence, the pair plan to escape on a 10-day hiking trip of their own.

Gilman and Hayward, making their acting debuts, are splendid. Sam and Suzy are both given odd quirks that if overplayed could have become too cute, but, under Anderson's direction, Gilman and Hayward are natural and believable. They capture all the uncertainty and awkwardness of being in love as a pre-teen.

Their relationship is based on their shared status as outsiders dealing with similar emotional issues. Sam is an orphan, and Suzy's mother (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with the local cop (Bruce Willis). They lash out, in hopes of someone noticing or caring, or perhaps because they simply don't know how to deal with their feelings. No one ever truly attempted to listen to or understand them until they met each other. This connection may not be love, but they are certain that it is and that's what counts.

The film is squarely centered on Sam and Suzy, but they are surrounded by an extraordinary cast. Edward Norton is the scoutmaster, Bill Murray is Suzy's father, Tilda Swinton works for civil services and Jason Schwartzman pops up as another scout leader.

All the adult actors are wonderful performing within Anderson's very particular style. Willis, who plays a sad, lonely man, is a standout. As of late, Willis hasn't been acting so much as doing lazy variations on the familiar "Bruce Willis" persona, so it is nice to see him challenging himself again. A couple scenes with Gilman recall the quiet tenderness of his work in "The Sixth Sense."

Anderson is a filmmaker who could be considered an auteur. The auteur theory, developed by French critics in the 1950s, regards the director as the true author of a film. It is a highly debated theory as it ignores the contributions of everyone else involved in the filmmaking process, but it also changed how audiences perceive films.

We often attribute a film to its director. Most film directors really don't leave a distinct stamp to their work, so the theory doesn't hold water for every filmmaker. Directors such as Woody Allen or Tim Burton have a style so recognizably their own that you instantly know you're watching one of their works.

Anderson, who also co-writes his films, has such a unique visual style and tone that it is safe to say that no one else makes films like him. Anderson's films are a genre unto themselves. They are categorized as comedies, but their tone is so dry and deadpan, that it is difficult to discern the comic from the serious.

Visually, Anderson is fond of slow-mo sequences set to pop tunes, long tracking shots, sweeping pans, shooting things from above, medium shots of his actors and first-person perspectives of moving vehicles. His films are realistic, but with absurdist flourishes.

Anderson's characters are often eccentric and, yet, in spite of their idiosyncrasies, are recognizable as they grapple with emotions and situations that are relatable and real. No matter how offbeat Anderson's films become, there is always an emotional honesty.

Too often comedies mock their characters, but Anderson doesn't ridicule his misfit creations. His affection toward them reveals that he sees himself as one, too. In all his films, Anderson's characters are struggling to be understood and accepted as they are.

"Moonrise Kingdom," perhaps more so than any of Anderson's previous films, flaunts its peculiar tone proudly. This is the kind of film where a character gets struck by lightning with no ill effects, but also features the accidental killing of a dog. The film also features an on-screen narrator — in the style of a historical or nature documentary — wryly played by Bob Balaban. It is a delicate balance of realism with the utterly ridiculous.

It is an uplifting and heartwarming story, although it certainly doesn't get there through the traditional route of feel-good films. As holds true for all of Anderson's films, this is not going to be for everyone. Some films are meant to have a broad appeal and others a very specific, limited audience. "Moonrise Kingdom" rewards the audience members willing to take the risk on something different.

Friday, July 13, 2012

New 'Spider-Man' offers worthy reboot to franchise

Five years after audiences last saw Tobey Maguire swinging around New York as our favorite arachnid superhero in "Spider-Man 3," we have the "The Amazing Spider-Man," a complete reboot with a new cast and a retelling of the origin story.

Going into "The Amazing Spider-Man," the biggest complaint seems to be that we don't need another film about how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man. It was only a decade earlier that Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" told the story of how geeky Peter Parker was bit by a radioactive spider and gained super powers.

But is this really any different than when we get a new James Bond every decade or so? "The Incredible Hulk" did a reboot five years after "Hulk" with little complaint from either critics or audiences. That film, though, streamlined the origin of the Hulk to the opening credits sequence.

The world of comic books is all about different perspectives with artists and writers bringing multiple takes on iconic characters. In the cases of comic characters that have been around for decades, there is often no definitive version of their story and fans will debate whose interpretation is best.

"The Amazing Spider-Man" exists because if Sony, which owns the movie rights to the character, didn't make a "Spider-Man" film it would lose those rights. The film takes the form of a reboot because the studio had a falling out with Sam Raimi, who was briefly set to do as many as three more "Spider-Man" films.

It is probably for the best though that the studio went for a fresh start as Raimi's series had completed its story arc. Raimi's first two "Spider-Man" films, particularly the second one, were well made, acted and visually compelling, but by third film the series was showing signs of fatigue. Even at their best Raimi's films were melodramatic and, at times, cornball.

This new film has a different tone. Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker with a chip on his shoulder. He is still an awkward outsider, but even before he gains his powers he's willing to stand up to a bully.

Peter is also given back his sense of humor. Spidey was a smart aleck and a wisecracker in the comics, but there was little of that in Raimi's films. Garfield is given sharp, clever dialogue and he delivers it with the perfect amount of snarkiness.

Garfield is fantastic in the role and makes the film work. As Peter he holds himself as someone who is still growing into his body. Through gaining his powers he gains confidence in himself. "Spider-Man" was always an allegory for puberty, and Garfield, under the direction of the appropriately named Marc Webb, gets this across more so than Maguire and Raimi ever did.

Maguire's Peter, despite having his occasional doubts about being "Spider-Man," was pretty saintly. Garfield's Peter is a bit more rebellious and impetuous, but he still remains a character who wants to do right with his newly found gifts. There's a sincerity to Garfield's performance that balances out the brooding elements.

This isn't solely Garfield's show as he's surrounded by a particularly strong cast. Emma Stone plays Peter's love interest Gwen Stacy. The sweet, funny and immensely likable Stone has a wonderful chemistry with Garfield. Their scenes together capture the awkwardness of teen love. It is easy to become emotionally invested in them as a couple.

Rhys Ifans plays Curt Connors, a one-armed scientist doing research in cross species genetics in hopes of being able to regrow his missing limb. When he tests a new serum on himself it does indeed grow his arm back, but also has the nasty side effect of turning him into a giant lizard who wants to transform the rest of humanity into human lizards.

Ifans makes Connors a worthy villain. Like so many of Spider-Man's adversaries, Connors is a tragic figure with dueling personalities. He's a good, gentle, if ever so slightly mad scientist, who is transformed both externally and internally into a monster. Ifans brings a nice subtly to the performance instead of going over-the-top.

There's a lot of typecasting, in a good way, with Sally Field, Martin Sheen and Denis Leary all playing variations on roles they've played before. Field and Sheen are ideally cast as Aunt May and Uncle Ben with Leary as police Captain Stacy. The characters are one-dimensional, but the actors are so familiar to audiences that we fill in the blanks.

Perhaps more so than ever before, Hollywood is very franchise-minded. You no longer simply make a single film. Now studio execs plan out whole series. So, yes, perhaps we are getting this new "Spider-Man" a bit too soon, but if they had to tell Spidey's origin again at least they have done it rather well.

Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company back in the habit with 'Nunsense'

The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company opens its 42nd season of professional theatre at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. with "Sister Amnesia's Country Western Nunsense Jamboree," the third installment in Dan Goggin's immensely popular "Nunsense" series.

The original "Nunsense" opened off-Broadway in 1985 and became an international sensation translated into at least 26 languages with more than 8,000 productions worldwide. Goggin, to date, has written seven sequels including a Christmas and all-male show. The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company did the Las Vegas-themed "Nunsenations" in 2006.

If you've seen one "Nunsense" show, you've seen them all. Each one features a group of nuns from Hoboken, N.J. cracking jokes, singing and interacting with the audience for two hours. The plot of "Nunsense Jamboree" focuses on the singing sisters hitting the road in promotion of Sister Amnesia's new country western album.

The "Nunsense" concept originated as a line of greeting cards, which makes sense as the jokes are on the level of the lame punchlines and puns that are common in greeting cards. How much you'll enjoy a "Nunsense" show depends on how high your tolerance for Christian jokes is.

"Some people think it's fluff and worthless," Goggin said in a 1996 New York Times article. "It is fluff but it ain't worthless."

The "Nunsense" series is lazy, but in its simplicity it is a crowd pleaser. This is theater for people who don't normally go to theater. It is non-demanding and non-challenging. A "Nunsense" show makes something like "The Music Man" seem like "MacBeth."

As Semina De Laurentis, the original Sister Amnesia, noted in the same New York Times article: "Because of 'Nunsense' we see people developing as theater-goers. These shows are bringing them in."

This production, which is playing through July 24, stars Jill Twiss as Sister Amnesia, Liz Wasser as Sister Mary Wilhelm, local girl Emilie Jensen as Sister Mary Leo, Jennifer Lauren Brown as Sister Robert Anne and Ryan Murvin as Father Virgil.

It is an amicable cast featuring high energy and strong vocals. The show stealer, though, is Brown as a tough talking nun from Brooklyn. With a New York accent and a sassy attitude, she commands the stage with songs like "A Cowgirl from Canarsie." The highlight of the show, at least musically, is "Growing Up in Brooklyn," which Brown makes a sweet, funny and tender ballad.

The best songs of the show are the ones that don't push too hard for the jokes or force the Christian message. "Seven A.M. in Phoenix" is a song that sister Mary Wilhelm sings to Sister Mary Leo to convince her to not give up being a nun, but it is also a beautiful ballad about not letting fear prevent you from being with someone or doing something you love. Wasser does a lovely job singing it.

The cast is given a fun barn set designed by Kenneth John Verdugo to play in. The rest of technical aspects are also in good form with solid lighting design from Victoria Miller and costume design from Barbara Erin Delo.

I'll be the first to admit that "Nunsense" is not for me. Reviewing the content of a "Nunsense" show seems moot. This isn't great or even good theater, but with the right cast and good direction it can be high energy fun.

Luckily, the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company's production has both. Director and choreographer Richard Sabellico, musical director Michael Hopewell and the cast do a good job of making sense out of the nonsense that is "Nunsense."

For more information or tickets call 356-5776 or visit

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Looking 'back' on The Beatles' early days

Thirty years after The Beatles first graced the big screen they returned, albeit in fictional form, in “Backbeat.” The film chronicles the tragic story of Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), The Beatles’ fifth member during the band’s formative years in Hamburg. Sutcliffe left the band to pursue his real passion of painting only to die from a brain hemorrhage just as The Beatles were about to explode.

Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Backbeat that “the exhilaration of the young Beatles has already been captured in one of the best musicals ever made, 'A Hard Day’s Night' and this movie never convinces us Stuart Sutcliffe could have held his own in the band.” But that’s not the film’s intent.

Sutcliffe wasn’t a musician. He joined the group because his friend John Lennon (Ian Hart) asked him to. He went to Hamburg for a laugh and out of loyalty to his best mate. Ebert, like many other critics, complained that Sutcliffe’s life and death is far less interesting than The Beatles story and that the only reason we are hearing his story is because of his peripheral presence in the band. Both statements are true, but don’t necessarily mean Backbeat is an unworthy film.

The Beatles are the reason the film exists and also, in many respects, what undermines its central story. There is genuineness between the friendship of Stu and John as portrayed by Dorff and Hart, who have the chemistry of lifelong mates. There is a sense of betrayal when Stu falls in love with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee). Astrid took the definitive photos of the band from this era and helped define the image that would make them stars a couple years later.

Dorff and Lee have a sweet chemistry that is completely different than that of Dorff and Hart’s and makes for an interesting counterpoint. A subtle love triangle develops, but not in a typical Hollywood fashion. It is the sort of triangle that you find in life, quietly there and deeply painful. Astrid is stuck between two men who care about each other deeply, but are heading down separate paths. Hart smolders with anger, desire and ambition to be something great. While Dorff’s Stu is content to just work on his art and be in love.

If Backbeat’s story was about fictional characters it would intrigue, but since it features characters that would go on to be debatably the most influential pop group of the 20th century, there is a sense that there should be more to the film. The film focuses so directly on Stu, Astrid and John that Paul (Gary Bakewell), George (Chris O'Neill) and original drummer Pete Best are barely present. Director and co-writer Iain Softley even debated changing the band and character names to avoid the film being overwhelmed by The Beatles unavoidable mystique. That the band is indeed The Beatles isn’t mentioned until near the film’s end.

While "Backbeat" doesn’t focus specifically on The Beatles it does capture their essence. Ebert was right in saying “A Hard Day’s Night” is the definite time capsule of The Beatles youthful energy and humor. But “Backbeat” does capture some of that humor in dialogue, for instance: “I had a word with Van Gogh last night. He said, ‘If he could do it all again he'd be down here shaking his bottom to 'Blue Suede Shoes.’ I gave him your regards.” Yet the film wisely doesn’t live and breathe on the loony-dialogue showcased in Richard Lester’s films. Instead the dialogue has a realness to it. The goofy camaraderie is balanced with desperation and yearning, whether it is for fame or love, that feels truthful.

This being a film featuring The Beatles, the music is, naturally, great. Softley chose not to use the actually Beatles, most likely out of necessity since recordings from the time period are unavailable or are bootlegs at best. In its place, Softley compiled a super group of post-punkers and grunge artists that included Nirvana’s Dave Grohl, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner and Afghan Wings’ Greg Dulli. It is a dynamite recreation of the music The Beatles were playing at the time, primarily covers of their favorite American 50s rock. It doesn’t quite sound like The Beatles, but it does capture the raw, infectious energy of the band. In addition to the music being spot on, so are the period details. The hair, costumes and atmosphere feel right. It is clear Softley and his crew took great care to have everything look and sound right and the attention to detail pays off.

The film has its flaws. It is implied that Sutcliffe’s death was due to a combination of a blow to the head in a bar fight and the use of speed, but neither rings true. Although we are shown Sutcliffe having one devastating headache and a drastic mood swing, his death occurs too abruptly. In actuality his death was a slow and painful one that left him bed ridden with agonizing migraines. Softley’s decision to cut that away for the sake of running time is reasonable, but Sutcliffe’s death feels almost like an afterthought. The film also has an annoying habit of cheekily dropping Beatles song titles into conversations. It is too knowing and cute for a movie that is otherwise above such gimmicks.

Friday, July 06, 2012

'Lie of the Mind' offers powerful, challenging night of theater

With their production of Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind," M&D Productions is doing what they're known best for: challenging, emotionally complex and thought-provoking theater.

Clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes including two intermissions, "A Lie of the Mind," which opened Thursday at Your Theatre in North Conway and is playing Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks, is not a light, easy night of theater. The play is an exploration of the repercussions and the self-perpetuating nature of abuse.

The play opens in the aftermath of a brutal act of violence. In a jealous rage, Jake (Brian Chamberlain) has beaten his wife Beth (Janette Kondrat) to the point of brain damage. He believes her to be dead and runs to his brother Frankie (Tomer Oz) to calm him down.

Beth is in the care of her brother Mike (Daniel Otero), but eventually Beth's parents Baylor and Meg (Bill Knolla and Stacy Sand) get involved. On the other side, Jake's mother Lorraine (Christina Howe) and sister Sally (Kate Gustafson) are trying to help as well. The play bounces back and forth between the parallel reactions to this terrible event.

The actors are performing on a stage designed by Deborah Jasien to look like a pane of shattered glass. This is a none-too-subtle, but effective representation of the minds of the characters.

Although it was Beth who was left physically brain damaged, Jake's actions against Beth seem to have left his mind fragmented and confused as well. Both Beth and Jake are reduced to childlike states as they lie to themselves about what happened.

The New York Times' Ben Brantley wrote in his review of the 2010 Broadway revival of the show that "it's not easy putting together a complete ensemble (there is no starring role) up to the demands of a script in which hyperreal and surreal teeter in delicate balance."

Director Ken Martin has managed to do just that though. He pulls performances out of his actors that go to deep, dark places. The entire cast bravely exposes raw nerves.

Kondrat, who played a different kind of crazy in "Misery's Child," finds a sweet innocence in portraying Beth. Beth's mind is damaged, but not lost. The pieces are all there, but the order is jumbled. Sometimes she has moments of clarity, but other times she's like a child lost in a supermarket.

Chamberlain finds similar notes in his performance, but also has an extraordinary anger inside of him that comes seething out of him. Even so, in spite of Jake's act of cruelty being the catalyst for the entire play, Chamberlain manages to make the character sympathetic.

Howe and Gustafson share a powerful scene together as mother and daughter attempt to confront a grim secret. It is a hard scene to watch with both actresses tapping into heavy emotions. Howe reveals previously unseen depths as an actress. Her Lorraine is full of bitter hatred and venomous vengeance and Howe brings those emotions painfully and completely across.

Knolla is a bellowing cantankerous old man, who is often cruel, but just as often right in how to deal with Beth's fragile state. Sand's Meg has a mind that is nearly as flighty as her daughter's and Sand does a nice job capturing her sweet-natured simpleness. This dysfunctional family is topped off with Otero's over-protective brother, who is angry at everyone, even the one he means to protect.

This already tense family dynamic is further complicated when Frankie shows up to confirm Beth is alive. Frankie spends much of the play in pain, for reasons best left discovered by the audience. When everyone around him appears to be going insane, he oftens seems to be the only voice of reason, but no one will listen. Oz does a good job portraying his confusion and frustration.

"A Lie of the Mind" is a difficult, often obtuse play that challenges its audience. Shepard realizes that the world is not black and white. He asks hard, even troubling, questions about the essence of humanity, love and how to break a continuing cycle of abuse. In the place of simple answers he leaves uncertainty and ambiguity. It is an intense, but rewarding experience.

For more information or tickets call the box office at 662-7591.

'Ted' is raunchy, sweet fun

Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the hugely popular animated series "Family Guy," makes the leap to live action feature films with "Ted," a gloriously coarse film about a grown man and his foul-mouthed living teddy bear.

In recent years, there have been a lot of arrested development comedies of man-boys, who are forced to face the real world. "Ted" takes this story arc one step further by making the protagonist best friend a teddy bear.

As "Ted" opens, we are introduced to little Johnny (Bretton Manley). He is so loathed by the other kids that they won't even beat him up as that would further acknowledge his existence. Even the little boy getting pummeled tells him to get lost. Johnny makes a Christmas wish that his teddy bear would come to life and be his lifelong friend.

The wish comes true, leading Ted to become an instant celebrity including an appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. Flash forward 27 years later and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) and John (now played by Mark Wahlberg) are lazy stoners obsessed with the 1980 film "Flash Gordon."

Remarkably, John is dating Lori (Mila Kunis), who is beautiful, intelligent, well employed and incredibly patient. After four years of putting up with Ted's negative influence, Lori is finally asking John to move on by having Ted move out.

There are subplots involving Lori's lecherous boss (Joel McHale) and, even stranger, a creepy stalker (Giovanni Ribisi) who wants to buy Ted. For the most part, though, the film focuses on the friendship of John and Ted and John's strained relationship with Lori.

This is more or less an R-rated live-action version of "Family Guy," complete with cutaway gags in the form of flashbacks and fantasies. There's even a score that recalls the sitcom-esque music of "Family Guy."

Much like "Family Guy" and MacFarlane's other shows, "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show," "Ted" is full of vulgar and offensive humor. The film is proudly un-politically correct with racist, sexist and homophobic jokes. So, how is that acceptable?

MacFarlane's sense of humor, however crude it may be, is rarely mean spirited or truly negative. His jokes are meant to point out the hypocrisies and double standards of a culture that has become overly PC. He is holding both the bigots and the overly uptight to task. He doesn't condone the actions of bigoted people, but rather mocks a society that claims to loath them and yet creates an environment that continues to produce them.

The biggest problem with MacFarlane's style of humor is that his target audience of 15 to 30 year olds doesn't always understand the satirical elements of his humor and simply repeat the offensive jokes because they seem cool.

For those who have a taste for low brow humor with an edge, "Ted" has some very funny bits. Two of the best parts — already seen in the R-rated trailer — the "Thunder Buddies Song" and Wahlberg's listing of white trash women names are instant classics.

On a technical level, Ted, a computer-generated creation using motion capture technology, is impressive. Similar to last year's little seen "Paul," which featured a foul-mouthed alien instead of a foul-mouthed teddy bear, it isn't long before you stop seeing Ted as a special effect and simply see him as real.

Wahlberg, who first showed off his talents at outrageous humor in 2010's "The Other Guys," is a good dramatic actor, but continues to prove that, with the right material, he may just be a better comedic actor. He has a believable easy-going chemistry with Ted, which is even more impressive when you consider that Wahlberg was playing against nothing as Ted was added in post-production.

Kunis, a fine comedic actor in her own right, is sadly just given the thankless role of the girlfriend. Fortunately, she isn't written to be a shrill harpy, but it would've been nice to see Kunis get to build some comic energy with Wahlberg and MacFarlane. Instead, she is just seen as a buzzkill, which is usually the case with women in MacFarlene's creations.

In terms of direction, MacFarlane paces his film right. He knows how to set up a gag and not cut away too soon. In fact, he often lets a gag run long, a trademark from his animation. When the film builds to a climactic confrontation with Ribisi, MacFarlane manages to create some genuine, and unexpected, tension.

What will be most surprising though to MacFarlane fans is how sweet and tender the film becomes. The film takes a dark turn in the final act and there's some real emotions mixed in with the laughs. This injection of heart into the proceeding helps to make the film become more than just another crass comedy.