The week in film: ‘Million Ways to Die,’ ‘Maleficent’ and more

May 30, 2014

million ways

I’m not going to apologize for laughing my ass off at Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”

And I’m not going to compare it to “Blazing Saddles.” Yes, they’re both spoofs of westerns with their own unique brand of gross-out humor. But that’s as far as the comparison goes.

Mel Brooks’ breakthrough 1974 comedy was a reflection of his unique brand of humor, rooted in the shpritz of the Borscht Belt, but also naughtier and more knowing, absurdist, silly and boundary-pushing. Watch it again today and you’ll laugh – but if you weren’t around when it first appeared, you’ll wonder why it was considered such an envelope-pushing – nay, envelope-shredding – comedy.

MacFarlane has an entirely different comic sensibility; the difference is generational, a comic mindset informed by everything else that’s happened in the intervening four decades. He’s every bit the absurdist that Brooks is, but with a much darker streak running through his humor and a wider-ranging sense of ad hominem comic references.

Inevitably, some of the complaints about this film will focus on the gross-out moments, whether violent, sexual or scatological. Personally, I’ll tip my hat to MacFarlane for his restraint, particularly in a climactic scene involving Neil Patrick Harris, the effects of a laxative and a couple of hats. He goes exactly where you expect him to, given the freedom of an R rating – and yet he uses surprising discipline in showing us just enough to get the huge laugh he’s primed audiences for, without overdoing it.

His story is about a cowardly sheep farmer (who he plays) who learns to be a gun-slinger from the Old West-equivalent of a gun moll (Charlize Theron). But he hates the life of his times, complaining constantly about how awful and potentially fatal his existence is in the Old West of 1880s Arizona. It’s really an excuse for a string of gags – bloody, dirty and otherwise inappropriately hilarious jokes – that range from the obvious to the bizarrely random. That includes several wonderfully weird cameos by famous faces that come and go with the speed of a “Family Guy” bit.

Yet, just as MacFarlane has revealed himself over the years to be a closet aficionado of the Broadway musical, he’s also an obvious lover of the classic western. Otherwise, why include the many loving shots of the landscape in Monument Valley (which is in Utah, by the way, not Arizona)? You wait for him to pull the rug out – to comment on these panoramic vistas with a gag. But he rarely does.

Is it great movie? Perhaps not – but I laughed frequently and heartily. Indeed, I came out of it thinking that I’d gotten as many big laughs as I did from “Neighbors,” a much sloppier film. Think of MacFarlane as a post-modern classicist, who loves his source material, even if he can’t resist the impulse to mock its conventions. Or just see “A Million Ways to Die in the West” for the sheer, vulgar fun of it.

maleficent

“Maleficent” is a revisionist fairy tale based on “Sleeping Beauty” – and not just the fairy tale, but the 1959 Disney animated film.

But “Maleficent” is maladroit, or perhaps just plain dull. Given the amount of obvious CG work it contains, it might as well have been animated. It would have needed a much stronger script to make it a fraction as interesting as the animated original.

Angelina Jolie, with enhanced cheekbones (like she needs enhancement), plays the title character, a powerful, leather-winged fairy who is betrayed by a human male (the wormy Sharlto Copley, who really should stop taking these kinds of roles). When that male becomes king and has a baby, she shows up at its christening to cast the spell that says the baby, Aurora (Elle Fanning), will one day prick her finger and fall into a death-like sleep.

Except she has second thoughts and adds a codicil: Aurora can be awakened by true love’s kiss. At which point “Maleficent” is transformed from fairy tale into every movie you’ve ever seen about a curmudgeon who learns to open his/her heart and love an adorable child.

The action is neither particularly imaginative nor satisfyingly exciting, unless you’re a 7-year-old who has lived a sheltered life. The visuals are lavish but derivative, calling to mind influences as diverse as Maxfield Parrish, Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” and those snot monsters in the Mucinex commercials. Fanning remains a fascinating young actress and Jolie, of course, can wring all sorts of emotional changes from her character just by shifting her eyebrows.

Just as “Wicked” flipped the script on “The Wizard of Oz” by showing us why the Wicked Witch of the West wasn’t really a villain, so “Maleficent” wants to be a tale of female empowerment in a male-dominated world. Which is fine, in theory. In practice, it’s just so much computer-enhanced tedium, devoid of tension and suspense.

seduction

“The Grand Seduction”: This feels like one of those effortlessly charming comedies that Great Britain seem to toss off with regularity (think “The Full Monty” or “Waking Ned Devine”), except that this one is set in Canada and was directed by Don McKellar. But it works as well as it does because it stars the magnificent Brendan Gleeson. He plays the acting mayor of a tiny fishing village that’s in competition to win a big factory, which would provide jobs for a town where most of the people survive on government assistance. Their biggest obstacle: To win the factory, the town has to attract and keep a doctor, who arrives in the form of a callow plastic surgeon (Taylor Kitsch). The plot holes are gigantic, but the spirit is so playful and breezy that you can sit back and enjoy the ride.

lucky them

“Lucky Them”: This comic road-trip movie focuses on Ellie Klug (Toni Collette), a one-time hotshot rock’n’roll critic down on her luck. She’s given one last chance by her joint-smoking boss (Oliver Platt), who assigns her to track down a rock star who vanished 20 years earlier, after putting out a classic album. The vanished star also happens to have been Ellie’s boyfriend. So she is forced to team up with a narcissistic dilettante (Thomas Haden Church), who agrees to bankroll her trip if he can come along and make a documentary about it. Church is a comic marvel, who makes even the weaker material here (and there’s a lot of it) come to life, thanks to his dazzling deadpan. But the film ultimately succumbs to both obvious plotting and the law of diminishing returns.

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