Saddles Don’t Blaze in ‘A Million Ways to Die’ ; Jolie is a Sleeping Beauty in ‘Maleficent’

 

a million ways to die

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST’
Movie Info

Seth MacFarlane directs, produces, co-writes and plays the role of the cowardly sheep farmer Albert in A Million Ways to Die in the West. After Albert backs out of a gunfight, his fickle girlfriend leaves him for another man. When a mysterious and beautiful woman rides into town, she helps him find his courage and they begin to fall in love. But when her husband, a notorious outlaw, arrives seeking revenge, the farmer must put his newfound courage to the test. Starring alongside MacFarlane are Oscar (R) winner Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman and Neil Patrick Harris. MacFarlane reunites many of the filmmakers behind Universal and MRC’s hit film Ted including Scott Stuber (Bluegrass Films) and Jason Clark who produce, and Wellesley Wild and Alec Sulkin who co-wrote the script.

R, 1 hr. 56 min.

Western, Comedy

Directed By:Seth MacFarlane
Film Review: ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’
Seth MacFarlane steps out of the teddy-bear suit for an overlong, uninspired comic western.

 

by Scott Foundas
Chief Film Critic@foundasonfilm
www.variety.com

The saddles don’t blaze in “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” and the pacing is limper than a three-legged horse. In following up his 2012 smash “Ted” with a lavish comic western, Seth MacFarlane has delivered a flaccid all-star farce that’s handsomely dressed up with nowhere to go for most of its padded two-hour running time. Pic faces a formidable box-office duel in its opening frame against Disney’s costly “Maleficent,” but regardless of the outcome there, it won’t come within striking distance of “Ted’s” $549 million global gold rush.

While it may be too tall an order to expect MacFarlane to deliver at the level of classic Mel Brooks (or Quentin Tarantino), “A Million Ways” fails to measure up to even its own creator’s high standard for nose-thumbing irreverence. Indeed, from “Family Guy” to “Ted,” we’ve come to expect the 40-year-old wunderkind to go for broke and, when he fails, to go down swinging (as in his valiant but misjudged paean to Hollywood cleavage at the 2013 Oscars). What you don’t expect from MacFarlane is a genteel, weightless genre parody that, even with its de rigueur parade of dick and fart jokes, is unlikely to offend anyone born after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

But that’s exactly what MacFarlane serves up in this tale of a nebbish sheep farmer who falls for a gorgeous moll and finds his inner gunslinger in the process. When we first meet him, MacFarlane’s Albert Stark has just weaseled his way out of a gunfight in the 1880s frontier town of Old Stump, Arizona, and been promptly dumped by girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who already has her doe eyes set on the town’s cocky “moustachery” impresario Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, the ends of his ’stache pomaded into airtight curls). So a disconsolate Albert returns to the family homestead and to tending his disobedient flock, until chance brings him face to face with strapping new-girl-in-town Anna (Charlize Theron), who fails to mention that she’s actually the wife of the most feared bandit for miles around, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).

Much of “A Million Ways” devotes itself to Albert’s efforts to win back the hand of his erstwhile lady love, though it’s a measure of the movie’s lazy writing (by MacFarlane and co-scribes Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) that Louise never materializes enough as a character for us to understand what drew Albert to her in the first place. Having impulsively challenged Foy to a duel, the gun-shy Albert gets a crash course in marksmanship from crack-shot Anna — a “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”-style montage during which one senses teacher and student developing more than a mere educational bond. And it’s largely thanks to the wonderfully loose, sassy Theron that the film stays as engaging as it does for as long as it does. Theron isn’t given much to do here, but she makes the most out of it, which is more than can be said for Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, who seem trapped in the ninth circle of comic hell as a virginal shoemaker and the prostitute girlfriend who refuses to sleep with him before their wedding night.

Watching “A Million Ways,” it feels like MacFarlane fell in love with the idea of doing a comic western and decided he’d worry about the particulars as he went along, resulting in a disjointed series of sketches linked together by lovingly photographed Monument Valley panoramas. In one of the movie’s more inspired bits, Albert quells a tense encounter with the Apache leader Cochise (Wes Studi) by demonstrating a mastery of the Indian tongue, but MacFarlane almost ruins the joke by following it up with a distended peyote dream sequence during which the movie veers perilously close to an ego-soaked vanity project.

Periodically, MacFarlane tries to gussy things up with off-color humor that simply feels off (like a “runaway slave” shooting gallery at the county fair) and a few gross-out gags that land with bigger thuds than the giant ice block that vividly crushes one character’s head into pulp. But nothing in the movie is quite so limiting as the presence of MacFarlane himself in a lead role he proves ill fit to carry. In his first live-action lead, he lumbers through the film spouting dialogue that sounds like an extended stand-up riff about the horrors of the Old West, all delivered with a modern, ironic-hipster smirk. The effect is not unlike that of seeing Brooks or Woody Allen in their own historical comedies, where they continued to “do” their patented comic personas even when the setting was the Napoleonic Wars or the Spanish Inquisition. Except that MacFarlane, who rose to prominence as an ingenious voice actor, proves surprisingly bland in the flesh, and his unmodulated delivery eventually runs as dry as the desert sands.

The movie benefits from an expensive period look courtesy of production designer Stephen Lineweaver and costume designer Cindy Evans (who dolls Theron up in one particularly memorable green plaid number with an enormous bustle), though MacFarlane seems at a loss, visually, when he has to stage a barroom brawl or an elaborate folk-dancing sequence. Michael Barrett’s widescreen cinematography looks crisp by day, but has a somewhat milky, washed-out quality in the night scenes. A surfeit of unbilled celebrity cameos serves mainly to remind us what cool friends MacFarlane has.
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maleficent
MOVIE REVIEW – ‘MALEFICENT’
Movie Info

“Maleficent” explores the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic “Sleeping Beauty” and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever. (c) Walt Disney Pictures

PG, 1 hr. 37 min.

Science Fiction & Fantasy

 

Film Review: ‘Maleficent’
Visually arresting fairy tale fails to offer a satisfying alternate history on ‘Sleeping Beauty’
by Andrew Barker
Senior Features Writer@barkerrant
www.variety.com

Now almost midway through the year, 2014 seems unlikely to produce many more visually arresting, brilliantly designed, stoned-college-kid-friendly pieces of eye candy than Disney’s “Maleficent.” As for its revisionist take on the travails of the iconic “Sleeping Beauty” villainess, however, it falls far short of something an imaginative fan-fiction scribe, let alone obvious role models John Gardner or Gregory Maguire, might have crafted from the material. Uncertain of tone, and bearing visible scarring from what one imagines were multiple rewrites, the film fails to probe the psychology of its subject or set up a satisfying alternate history, but it sure is nice to look at for 97 minutes. Boasting an impressive and impeccably costumed Angelina Jolie in the title role, it ought to prove a solid global moneymaker and merchandise-minter for the Mouse House.

Of the four fractured fairy tales produced by Joe Roth (“Oz the Great and Powerful,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Snow White and the Huntsman”), “Maleficent” is the one that hews closest to its source material, and it’s not always clear whether this helps or hinders. Directed by first-time helmer Robert Stromberg from a script credited to “Beauty and the Beast” scribe Linda Woolverton, the film has a clever enough big-picture take on the “Sleeping Beauty” tale, yet it sputters and snags as it tries construct a coherent emotional arc, and its reference points from the 1959 animated original feel more dutiful than inspired.

Opening with storybook-themed voiceover narration, “Maleficent” sketches a realm of two rival kingdoms – not Stefan’s and Hubert’s, but rather the world of humans and the outlying moors, which are home to fairies, trolls and imposing wickermen. Darting around the moors like a sort of saucer-eyed Tinkerbell is the winged young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy), who strikes up an unlikely friendship, and later romance, with a trespassing human farmhand named Stefan (Michael Higgins).

Alas, their love is not to be, as a poorly explained war breaks out between the two kingdoms years later, and the adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley) betrays Maleficent (Jolie) by drugging her and cutting off her wings, all in the name of a job promotion. (To be fair, going from farmboy to king is one hell of a jump up the employment ladder.) Now a woman scorned and shorn, Maleficent fashions a magical staff from a twig, dons a black helmet, and takes memorable revenge on Stefan’s infant daughter, Aurora.

Granted the proper grace notes and breathing room, this sequence of events could have provided more than enough material for a dark stand-alone prequel – indeed, it took George Lucas three full features to complete a very similar character arc for Anakin Skywalker. However, “Maleficent” is only just now getting started, and the next two-thirds of the film see our erstwhile antihero hiding in the bushes outside Aurora’s cabin in the woods, serving as an unlikely “fairy godmother” and rethinking her curse, while Aurora’s bumbling guardians (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple) prove entirely incompetent babysitters.

Already a double Oscar winner for his work as an art director, Stromberg knows how to visualize a scene and exactly where to place the camera, but storytelling requires different muscles, and the film often lurches where it ought to flow, rarely latching onto the proper rhythm. It isn’t until roughly halfway through the film, for example, that Maleficent cracks her first joke, which is so out of character that it initially sounds like a blooper.

While the film avoids the two-hour-plus bloat of “Oz” and “The Huntsman,” this is a story that would actually benefit from some slow-paced indulgence. Or at least, better instincts for where to make cuts. For example, an expensive-looking yet utterly inconsequential battle sequence plopped into the middle of the pic sees Maleficent neutralize a squadron of nameless soldiers with neither motivation nor consequences, but the scenes in which she bonds with the 16-year-old Aurora (Elle Fanning) – ostensibly the most important, emotionally weighty relationship in the film – feel rough and rushed.

While Fanning’s Aurora is relegated to a supporting role (and Brenton Thwaites’ Prince Phillip a glorified cameo) Jolie is perfectly cast in the lead, and does excellent work despite substantial physical constraints. She spends the entire film wearing a prosthetic nose, cheeks, teeth and ears, with moon-sized contact lenses and a bulky set of horns atop her head. (Master makeup magician Rick Baker is in stellar form here.) Her movements are often strictly dictated by how best to frame her silhouette. She has few lines that aren’t delivered as monologue, and her most frequent co-stars are digitally rendered creatures. That she manages to command the screen as well as she does in spite of all this is rather remarkable.

It’s also a performance that begs for flourishes of high camp that the film rarely allows. When Jolie is let loose to really bare her fangs, such as her nearly word-for-word re-creation of Maleficent’s first scene from the Disney original, she strips the paint from the walls. (Her primary deviation from the script here offers a peak at the kind of unhinged delight this story could have been in braver hands, as she forces Stefan to his knees and hisses, “I like you begging; do it again!” like a proper Reeperbahn dominatrix.) Yet one is much more likely to see her wordlessly glowering from behind trees and palace walls, as though just another finely crafted visual effect.

As for the actual effects themselves, the level of craft on display here is exquisite. From the swooping shots around Stefan’s castle to the lava-lamp-like floral arrangements that dot Maleficent’s lair, the film’s armies of art directors, costumers and effects technicians aim for the spectacular with every shot, and nail it with impressive consistency. Musically, James Newton Howard’s sweeping score locates a nice sweet spot somewhere between Erich Korngold and Danny Elfman, and Lana Del Rey’s gothy take on the “Sleeping Beauty” showstopper “Once Upon a Dream” makes for a fitting closer.

 

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