Saturday, May 31, 2014
Maleficent, A Million Ways to Die in the West Reviews
Dir. Robert Stromberg
Angelina Jolie stars in her horniest role yet in Maleficent, her first live action movie in 4 years (during which time she was probably recovering from The Tourist). Taking a cue from/ripping off the stage show Wicked, Maleficent tells the Sleepying Beauty tale from the perspective of the villain, in this case one of Disney's most beloved villains, Maleficent - although most of this film does not fall within the continuity of the original animated classic. First-time director Robert Stromberg knows how to make a magical CGI world come to life really darn well (he earned two Academy Awards for Production Design for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland), and he sure did make Maleficent into a creature and glow-y things-filled journey... if only he cared as much about the story as the eye candy.
The film starts out with Maleficent as a little girl, and her meeting with a little King Stefan. The two become friends despite their differences (one being a winged faerie, the other a human, the two sides at war with each other) and grow up together, but eventually, in an effort to become king, Stefon (Sharlto Copley) chops off Maleficent's wings and presents them to the royalty. Thus begins Maleficent's grudge against the kingdom. When Stefan has a daughter, she curses the little baby to an eternal sleep on her 16th birthday; she'll prick her finger on a spindle and only true-love's kiss can awaken her. But, as we find out, Maleficent actually starts to empathize with little Aurora (Elle Fanning) and becomes a sort of fairy godmother from the shadows, torn between her hatred of humans and her love of this kid.
The set-up of the movie is actually quite nice and could have set the stage for a very unique summer spectacle. But besides Maleficent, none of the characters have clear motivations and are just plain uninteresting. Why exactly the humans are at war with the harmless fairies is never explained, nor is why Maleficent would ever decide to look after the daughter of a man who betrayed her. There were countless moments of conveniences (for example: even though Stefan supposedly burned every spindle in the village, for whatever reason there is a warehouse-sized room in the castle filled with broken/charred spindles), and the best parts of the source material were either rushed or poorly re-written in an effort to subvert expectations; this may be SPOILERS, but here, Maleficent doesn't actually change into a dragon, it's her transforming sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley), and the eventual "kiss" is not who you think it is - in my mind to "Frozen up" the story. END SPOILERS.
Jolie holds a stark resemblance to the character - the casting was so "obvious" that Disney committed that the film would not be made had Jolie not taken the part. She does take a solid stab at the material, and with all the problems of this film, her performance isn't one of them. Jolie and the special effects may be enough to satisfy many moviegoers, but I was not enchanted by this slog of a movie. As much as I loved Copley in District 9, I don't think he was right for the part, and I seriously wanted to punch Elle Fanning every time she appeared on screen (she was too damn happy and smiling all the time). And not to mention the dreadful attempts at comedic relief. The three fairies responsible for looking after Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville in horrible "uncanny valley" CGI representations of themselves) have some of the most headache-inducing, cringe-worthy lines I've ever heard. At one point Maleficent remarks to Diaval "Oh come on, that's funny." No it's not.
Maleficent is just another over-produced Disney fantasy film that I'm sure people will come in droves to see. I have no idea why this has a CinemaScore of "A," I guess audiences are just more forgiving, but I found this to be a rushed mess of a movie. The film feels more like one long "previously on" recap segment before a TV show, especially during the first 20 or so minutes with the voice-over narrator, glossing over major plot points with the same level of emotion as Siri giving directions to the closest Steakhouse. Even though the story deals with themes of revenge, patriarchy, and burgeoning into womanhood, I don't think Stromberg knew how to handle the material at all. I'd rather prick myself on a spindle than watch this movie again.
A Million Ways to Die in the West
Dir. Seth MacFarlane
Seth MacFarlane had a surprise success a few years ago when Ted went on to become one of the highest-grossing R-Rated comedies ever. However, the Family Guy creator did lose some goodwill after his Oscar-hosting was met with mixed reactions, and with his latest, A Million Ways to Die in the West, looking like a cheap vanity project/Blazing Saddles ripoff, MacFarlane may be shooting himself in the foot here. But as a fan of MacFarlane, I was still excited despite some horribly spoiler-y trailers and bad early buzz. Ultimately, A Million Ways to Die in the West has a handful of genuinely funny, laugh-out-loud moments, but for the most part is filled with too much pointless crudeness, and an uninspired, re-hashed story.
Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is a sheep farmer who can't shoot for shit, and when his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfriend) dumps him for a mustache-toting Neil Patrick Harris, he drinks his problems away. That is until Anna Leatherwood (Charlize Theron) teaches him to properly handle a pistol as a favor for saving her life during a barroom brawl. The two start to fall for each other, but what Stark doesn't know is that Anna's husband Clinch (Liam Neeson) is the meanest shooter in the West. Throw in a side plot with Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman who are "waiting" until their marriage to have sex (even though Silverman is a prostitute), and that's what this uninspired plot has to offer.
While there were some hilarious scenes (many involving poop, fart, dick, or ass jokes), the film didn't rise to the level of Ted, which managed to set those raunchy jokes against a solid "bromance" plot. The "romance" scenes between Theron and MacFarlane in A Million Ways to Die in the West were some of the worst I've ever seen. They were the only moments played seriously, and they come off as a back-handed way for Seth to make out with one of the most beautiful women in the world (Adam Sandler often employs the same technique). The actors all seemed like they were trying too hard to be "edgy," spouting out curse words just for the sake of it. While I love and encourage the use of course language when appropriate (listen to any of Lewis Black's comedy albums for the best use of foul language), I don't like when it's not used creatively; I could've sworn I heard MacFarlane shout "Holy shit!" fifteen times after seeing something supposedly shocking, totally deflating the situation. Although the gags that work really work, most of the film feels like a teenager finally being told he can say and do what he wants.
MacFarlane is clearly a talented guy, but I think he should stick to doing voiceover work. He doesn't have that indefinable "star quality" to make a film like this work, and I think it's honestly a waste for him not to. MacFarlane's at his best when he's "not" himself (whether crooning like Sinatra or channeling his inner Rex Harrison to voice Stewie Griffin), and A Million Ways to Die in the West seems more like a push for him to further his star power than anything else. I did find myself laughing every so often (all I'll say is the "daisy" scene is now a classic in my book), and the jokes that did land made up for the ones that didn't, but I think this showcases MacFarlane's limitations more than his strengths.