Movie Review ~ A Million Ways to Die in the West

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a cowardly farmer begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town, he must put his new-found courage to the test when her husband, a notorious gun-slinger, announces his arrival.

Stars: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris

Director: Seth MacFarlane

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  The posters for A Million Ways to Die in the West tout “From the guy who brought you Ted”…that should have been enough of a warning for me to head for the hills.   For the “guy” in question is Seth MacFarlane and Ted wasn’t exactly my favorite film of 2012.  Though I’ve come to a point of forgiveness with MacFarlane after his arguably unforgivable job hosting the Oscars in 2013, I got saddle sores while sitting through his attempt to make a Blazing Saddles for his Family Guy audience.

I realized while watching (more like grimacing through) MacFarlane’s latest directorial effort that Westerns don’t often get a new spin but when they do, more often than not they work.  Blazing Saddles from 1974 and Django Unchained from 2012 are the first examples that come to mind.  While Saddles was a Mel Brooks exercise in comedic buffoonery, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western revenge epic was bloody good fun.  A Million Ways to Die in the West is an example of the wide, wide chasm that exists between films like Saddles and Django and MacFarlane’s raunchy and ribald supposed comedy.

There’s a good laugh right off the bat but sadly, like the roles played by Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi, the funny stuff all but disappears for more than half the film.  In place of actual laughs is MacFarlane’s ill-advised attempt to Woody Allen-ize every paranoid, fatalist diatribe he’s written for his character.  His clueless sheep farmer in 1822 speaks like an overindulged frat boy from Yale and looks like he got lost on a back lot tour of the set of Gunsmoke.  MacFarlane is so pasty white and healthy looking that when he’s in crowd scenes with his fellow dust bowlers he stands out like a sore thumb…either he didn’t want to get dirty or he’s going after an endorsement deal with Noxzema.

In Ted, MacFarlane only provided the voice for the naughty bear and that was somewhat tolerable.  This film makes it clear that he’s better suited doing his various voices behind the camera than being front and center.  Previously mentioned team players Silverman (Wreck-It Ralph) and Ribisi (Contraband) don’t have much to do but make voraciously explicit sex jokes that had the college age guys sitting next to me literally falling out of their seat with laughter.  Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) spends the entirety of the film rolling her eyes (possibly mimicking the audience?) and Liam Neeson (Non-Stop, The Nut Job) provides another cinematic example of why needs to learn to say no to every role he’s offered.

Rounding out the cast is an unusually game Charlize Theron as bandit Neeson’s wife that takes a head-scratching interest in MacFarlane’s character.  Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) hasn’t done much in comedy and if she isn’t entirely successful here, I hope she gives it another go with a better script, director, and leading man because she has good instincts.  Neil Patrick Harris (Gone Girl) is overexposed.  There, I said it.  Even more in love with himself than MacFarlane, Harris’ broadly drafted mustached louse is a painful sight to behold — especially when he’s seen defecating in not one but two hats.

The defecating (and its fully visualized aftermath) is just one example from a film filled with an endless supply of gross out gags, aroused animal genitals, rogue bodily fluids, and rancid jokes that are lingered on and even explained for good measure.  I don’t doubt that the population in the early 1800’s knew how to swear a blue streak, but I have mixed feelings that the phrase “Let’s get f***ed up!” was popular at the time.

I’d like to say I’m not the target audience for the film…but that just isn’t true.  I’m all for dumb humor and the kind of time wasting that movies allow and provide excuses for enjoying…but this just takes things too far.  Thanks to MacFarlane’s major miscalculation that he knows from funny, A Million Ways to Die in the West should D.O.A. by high noon the day it opens.

Note: If you simply MUST see this film, there are several cameos that may make it worth your while.  One cameo in particular is brilliant…you’ll know it when you see it.

Movie Review ~ Maleficent

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A vindictive fairy is driven to curse an infant princess only to realize the child may be the only one who can restore peace.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville 

Director: Robert Stromberg

Rated: PG

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Like a hunter circling a hungry lion, I approached the screening of Maleficent with the greatest of quiet care.  See, I’ve been mauled before by revisionist fairy tales that promised big and delivered small so I was cautious to not get my hopes up that Walt Disney Studios would get it right.  Even after seeing the production photos and previews of Angelina Jolie as the horned titular character I wasn’t totally sold that this would be different than the others.

So perhaps the bar was reservedly low enough that Jolie and the team behind Maleficent could easily hop over it.  Actually, that sells the film shorter than it deserves because for the most part it’s a success thanks to a dedicated true star performance and a script that puts the humanity back into the fairy tale we all grew up with.

Not that the film doesn’t start out pretty rough, though.  The first 20 minutes or so had me worried as we were introduced to young Maleficent, a sylvan fairy with horns and a mighty wing span.  Though small of stature she easily keeps the peace in the moors that lie just beyond the realm of a neighboring kingdom.  Colorful but garish CGI creatures float by (and off the screen if you’re seeing it in 3D) as the script by Linda Woolverton (2010’s Alice in Wonderland) lays on a back story of love gone wrong between Maleficent and Stefan, a human who starts off very benign until his royal ambitions turns him very bad.

Betrayed by the man she loves, the adult Maleficent (Jolie, Kung Fu Panda 2) concocts a plan of revenge not toward Stefan (Sharlto Copley, Elysium) but to his newborn daughter, Aurora.  That brings us up to the point where Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty starts off and this new twist on an old classic liberally borrows from the animated film, sometimes verbatim.

Though it does add some interesting layers to the oft-told tale and tosses an ample amount of sympathy toward Maleficent, too often the film loses its focus and retreats into a CGI world of fantasy to distract audiences that nothing really new is happening.  The long prologue and extended ending both are disappointingly CGI heavy…a remnant perhaps of when director Tim Burton was attached to the project around 2010.

What gets the film a recommendation from this critic is Jolie’s lip smacking turn as the not so misunderstood villainess of the title.  While it does take a page from Wicked, the novel turned Broadway smash about the Wicked Witch of the West, it doesn’t weaken her when it shows that there’s a wounded heart underneath the snakeskin wrapped horns and skintight leather ensemble.  Jolie revels in every moment she’s onscreen, letting her blood red lips part to reveal a menacing grin of blindingly white teeth whenever possible.  She’s at her best, though, when she allows the “evil” fairy moments of vulnerability, thanks to Woolverton’s reimagining of Maleficent being seen by Aurora as a fairy godmother, not the conjuror that puts a deadly spell on her.

Copley, on the other hand, would be a reason to stay far away from the film.  Though Stefan and Maleficent are supposedly the same age onscreen, Copley looks like a recently roused Rip Van Winkle and sports the kind of overemphasized Scottish burr usually reserved for animated dogs.  Copley seems to think too hard about his performance, compensating with ACTING so violently that it’s puzzling to know what he wanted to accomplish.  The trio of familiar fairies assigned to protect Aurora suggests more of the dim witches in Hocus Pocus than the loveably dotty ones of the original.  And Elle Fanning (We Bought a Zoo) as Aurora does her best with an accent learned from, no doubt, Downtown Abbey but is found often with a blank stare suggesting she was in the middle of figuring out an algebra equation.

No, it’s Jolie that’s all over the film and deservedly so.   Working with Oscar winning production designer turned director Robert Stromberg, Jolie is instrumental to the success of the film.  Where Mirror Mirror was too much zany comedy and Snow White and the Huntsman was too darkly violent, Maleficent strikes the right balance between the two.  With moments of humor that fit in nicely with its darker edge, the PG rated film is way too scary for young children but is solid family entertainment for children a tad young to take in the latest X-Men adventure or watch Godzilla wreak havoc.