A Million Ways to Die in the West


Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

(2014) Western Comedy (Universal) Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark, Evan Jones, Aaron McPherson, Rex Linn, Brett Rickaby, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman, John Aylward, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lloyd, Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

During the 1950s, Americans tended to idealize the Old West. Rugged cowboys rode the range, rescued pretty school marms from bandits and varmints, and generally saved the day with an “aw, shucks” modesty. Cowboys were real men, Indians were the enemy and things were pretty simple. Of course, it wasn’t really like that.

The Old West was in reality a brutal place where arguments were solved with guns, violence was rampant, sanitation was next to impossible and the only thing worse than contracting a disease was going to the doctor to get it cured. Albert (MacFarlane), a sheep farmer in hole-in-the-wall Old Stump, Arizona, knows it better than most. He is the sort of guy who would rather negotiate than fight, which makes him yellow in the Old West. That’s fine and dandy with Albert. He’d much rather be a live coward than a dead hero.

His girlfriend Louise (Seyfried) doesn’t necessarily agree with that philosophy. After a humiliation after being challenged to a gunfight, Louise decides she’s had enough and dumps Albert in favor of Foy (Harris), a successful shop owner who caters to moustache owners. Albert is devastated. Louise was one of the only things worth staying in the West for. San Francisco would be a much better place for him, much to the disdain of his father (Hagen). His close friends Edward (Ribisi) and Ruth (Silverman) commiserate but they have problems of their own. For one, they’ve been together and they want to have sex, but also want to wait until they get married and keep their purity. Until then, Ruth will continue working as a prostitute to help save up enough to get married. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

Into his life waltzes Anna (Theron), a gorgeous blonde who is new in town. She also happens to be a crack shot and when Albert loses his temper and challenges Foy to a gunfight, she offers to help Albert work on his marksmanship. Of course, they soon develop into something more than friends even though Albert still wants to win Louise back. However, Anna might have forgot to mention that she’s married – to Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), one of the most vicious and deadliest gunfighters in the West.

The title is apt. MacFarlane’s character constantly grouses throughout about how dangerous it is out in the West and throughout the film people get killed by wild animals, shot by ornery bandits, crushed by blocks of ice and in a memorable sequence, fart themselves to death.

Fans of MacFarlane’s TV show Family Guy will no doubt feel right at home here. However, it should be said that the humor is pushes the envelope HARD and there are some things that you’re going to find offensive, like the shooting gallery gag that also serves as the fodder for an after-the-credits scene with a surprise cameo appearance. In fact, there are a ton of cameos to keep an eye out for.

Otherwise, this is one of those movies that throws as many jokes as it can into the mix and sees which ones you find funny and which ones you don’t. When the comedy works here, it’s sidesplitting. When it doesn’t, it’s groan-inducing. Fortunately, it works more than not.

MacFarlane is an appealing lead, although his character is a kind of neurotic nebbish, sort of like Woody Allen in chaps. MacFarlane, who co-wrote as well as directed and starred in this, has the characters act in fairly modern idioms, which allows 2014 audiences to relate better to the action in some ways while others might find this anachronistic and off-putting. It is part of the humor to hear someone from 1882 say “Oh, snap!” although again, there was some sniffing from critical quarters.

The supporting cast isn’t a bunch of straight men (and women) to MacFarlane as a lot of modern comedies tend to do; they all have their funny moments which you would want from a cast of talented actors like this. Only Neeson seems to be playing it straight, although he does give Clinch an outrageous Lucky Charms Irish accent which apparently he insisted upon before taking the part. I don’t know if a gunslinger with an Irish brogue rates laughs but okay.

MacFarlane references other Western comedies, notably Blazing Saddles and Django Unchained (which isn’t, strictly speaking, pure comedy) directly and otherwise. He makes use of Utah’s Monument Valley (subbing for Arizona) with some nifty cinematography, graphics and score right out of a 1950s epic screen Western. Visually speaking, he’s got the Western part down. However, the story doesn’t really support the length of the film and I got a little bit fidgety there towards the end.

This hasn’t been getting good reviews and I’ve also read some comments from non-reviewers that expressed how offended they were at this movie. There are those who tolerate offensive humor more than others and if you’re one of the others it wouldn’t be a good idea for you to check this out. I don’t think this is as good as MacFarlane’s previous movie Ted but that movie had its share of squirm-inducing moments. Use that as your guide as to whether you should see it or not. This isn’t for everybody, but the people that it is are going to love it.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s hysterical. Fun concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Overkill. Runs about 20 minutes too long. Those who don’t tolerate profanity and sex very well should stay the fuck away.

FAMILY VALUES: A cornucopia of profanity and sexual innuendo, some violence and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Theron wore a wig throughout the shooting because she had shaved her head for the filming of Mad Max: Fury Road.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blazing Saddles

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Maleficent

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ParaNorman


ParaNorman

Norman has a different kind of homework.

(2012) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch, Tucker Albrizzi, Jeff Garlin. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler

 

There are those who believe that death brings peace, at long last, for the living. Of course, given what life is like why on earth – or beyond it – should we expect that? Why wouldn’t the afterlife be just as bothersome and as annoying as life is?

For Norman (Smit-McPhee) the current life is plenty bothersome and annoying. He is the weird kid, picked on by bullies like Alvin (Mintz-Plasse), his own exasperated sister Courtney (Kendrick), his mom (Mann) who doesn’t really understand him but tries to, and his dad (Garlin) who doesn’t even try.

See, Norman lives in a New England village called Blithe Hollow (a combination of Blithe Spirits and Sleepy Hollow  – not the first nod to both the film and literature of the spooky) which is famous for executing a witch 300 years earlier. Norman also happens to see dead people. And talk to them. And they, for their part, talk back. In fact, Norman has more friends among the dead than he does the living. His only corporeal friend is Neil (Albrizzi), a rotund but indefatigably cheerful kid who accepts things more or less at face value.

The witch, you see, had managed just before dying to affix a pretty awful curse on the town that had been stemmed off by members of Norman’s family. The latest in the line, an uncle (Goodman) has a bum ticker and is trying to transfer his knowledge to Norman but doesn’t quite make it to the big day. That’s ok; he can talk to Norman anyway.

Norman is tasked with reading from a sacred book in a certain spot. The problem is, Norman doesn’t understand what he’s reading and why it will save the town from being beset by the walking dead. He will have to link up with unlikely allies and fight against some unlikely opponents if he is to save Blithe Hollow from an army (all right, seven) of zombies.

The animation studio that gave us Coraline give us another horror-themed stop-motion animated feature that is as much for adults as it is for kids. Talk about finding your own niche. Still, if you can’t be Aardman (and how many studios really can be) this is a good place to be. Stop motion has an inherent 3D feel to it; there is depth to the faces here, from bags under the eyes of some of the characters to zits to sallow, sunken cheekbones. The movie itself is pretty dark in tone (most of it takes place at dusk or after dark) so the 3D doesn’t help it from that standpoint; still it looks pretty nifty as animated 3D features go.

The voice casting is on the quirky side. McPhee-Smit is best known for the downer action film The Road as well as the winter vampire remake Let Me In. In many ways, he had to carry a good deal of the latter film; he has to do it here vocally and does a pretty fine job of it. He has some pretty good chemistry with Mintz-Plasse and Albrizzi which helps a whole lot.

The writing is clever and lovers of horror films both classic and modern will get a kick out of the many, many references here. Whether it’s Norman being startled by a figure on his front lawn wearing a Jason-like goalie mask only to have it turn out to be Neil who calls out “Wanna play some hockey?” or nods to ghostly thrillers like The Sixth Sense and The Frighteners. However, there were some kids at the screening we went to who were clearly too young to really get the playful tone of the film. Wise parents should exercise caution before taking their kids as some of the situations and imagery is genuinely terrifying.

Still, there are some strong anti-bullying and acceptance of diversity messages here that will resonate with older kids. While the theatrical run is nearly done, this feels like it will be a Halloween kids classic that certainly out-charms and out-smarts fare like the Scooby-Doo movies and more classic TV kidfilms like Monster Mash. There is plenty of heart here and some surprisingly funny moments like Norman’s late grandmother (Stritch) who complains that the afterlife sucks because there is no cable. Having been in some pretty rustic places in the past couple of weeks, I can certainly relate.

REASONS TO GO: Clever and genuine. Lots of homages but doesn’t date itself.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes a little too cute for its own good…and a little too terrifying to really nail that core audience it wants.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the imagery is a bit too frightening for the very little. Some of the humor is a little crude as well; in fact, you might want to skip this if your kids are in single digits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although none of the cursed zombies are referred to by name (except for Judge Hopkins), they all were given names; Eben Hardwick, Thaddeus Blackton, Lemuel Spalding, Amelia Wilcot, Goodie Temper and Wile London.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are pretty darn good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Nightmare Before Christmas

JOHN CARPENTER LOVERS: While there are several classic horror films referred to throughout the script either directly or indirectly, the ringtone on Norman’s phone is the iconic theme from Carpenter’s Halloween.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Premium Rush

Killers


Killers

Katherine Heigl prays for a better movie next time after checking out how much she made on this one.

(Lionsgate)  Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, Tom Selleck, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Mull, Katheryn Winnick, Kevin Sussman, Alex Borstein, Lisa Ann Walter, Rob Riggle, Casey Wilson, Usher Raymond, Letoya Luckett. Directed by Robert Luketic

How well do you really know your mate? You can take at face value what they tell you about their past, but how truthful are they really being? More importantly, what could they be leaving out?

Jen Kornfeldt (Heigl) has just been dumped by her boyfriend. They had been planning a vacation to Nice on the French Riviera but she winds up going with her parents instead – her dad (Selleck) a dour, straight-laced former airline pilot and her mom (O’Hara), a borderline alcoholic whose free spirit has been drowned in an endless ocean of cocktails.

In Nice she meets Spencer Aimes (Kutcher), a handsome, ripped and nice young man who yearns to settle down with the right girl and put down some roots. He’s a consultant working for a company that has him travelling all over the world, and he’s ready to get off the merry-go-round. At first, Jen is reluctant to confess her status as recently dumped and vacationing with her parents but eventually she comes clean, particularly after she’s had a lot more to drink than she normally does, confiding in Spencer her dating past as a “nerd magnet.”

Fast-forward three years. The two are happily married and living in a quiet Atlanta suburb with block parties, nosy neighbors and the sound of riding mowers. Jen is a consultant for a computer software company while Spencer has his own construction company. Life is pretty idyllic for the two, with Jen’s parents a mere five minutes away. Okay, maybe not so idyllic.

It’s Spencer’s birthday and he really doesn’t want to make a big deal of it. In fact, he seems pretty moody lately and Jen’s at a loss to explain why. She makes arrangements to throw a big birthday party for him, with her dad in charge of driving Spencer to the house. The party goes pretty well, although again Spencer seems distant. Jen’s friends attribute it to the Three Year Snooze, the point in a marriage when routine begins to dominate. Jen wants to question Spencer further but she has to go out of town to deliver a presentation on her company’s new software at a San Francisco computing conference.

She returns home and is horrified to discover her husband and his best friend Henry (Riggle) locked in mortal combat. After Spencer subdues Henry and they get him tied up, she is understandably shocked and demands an explanation.

It turns out that Spencer’s past is catching up with him. The “company” he used to work for is in fact the CIA and he was a contract assassin for them. Having left the agency to be with her, he has discovered that nobody just “leaves” the company. After questioning Henry, they discover that there is a $20 million bounty on Spencer’s head and there is more than one assassin planted among their neighbors and friends just waiting to collect it.

From that point on they are dodging bullets and homicidal killers, all the while trying to get Jen’s pregnancy test done. When they try to question Spencer’s former boss (Mull), they find him as dead as a doornail – two shots to the heart and one to the head, very old school. If Spencer’s boss didn’t let loose the hounds, who did? Jen is angry and bitter, feeling that Spencer had lied to her all this time about his past. In the meantime, people they thought were friends and neighbors are trying to kill them. If they survive the attempts on Spencer’s life, will their marriage survive?

Heigl has been repeatedly cast in romantic comedies of late, few of which match her breakout role in Knocked Up. Here they even add the pregnancy card to try and maybe recapture that magic but quite frankly this isn’t the right role for Heigl. While she isn’t really called upon to be the action hero here, she is probably more comfortable in straight comedic roles.

Her chemistry with Kutcher isn’t what you’d call scintillating. At times you wonder what they saw in each other to begin with. The relationship is so central to the movie that if it isn’t believable, the whole movie falls apart. It’s not quite unbelievable but it’s close.

The action sequences are a bit rote which doesn’t help matters. This is primarily a comedy with the action secondary, but even so I would have liked a bit more edge to the action. That’s one of the things that made the similarly-themed Mr. and Mrs. Smith so delightful. Here there’s nothing surprising so you tend to stifle a yawn.

What does work in the movie is Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara. Selleck has fun with his image as a tough guy and brings a little DeNiro into the mix. The combination works very nicely. O’Hara is an underrated comedienne and steals nearly every scene she’s in. It’s nice to see her do what she does best – create a character that’s funny and believable at the same time.

Killers isn’t really a bad movie, it’s just not a very good one. It’s diverting and has its own charm but certainly it isn’t a movie you should feel the need to run right out and see. It has its moments and if you are fans of either Kutcher or Heigl you’ll probably see it anyway, but otherwise this is one you can safely wait for its appearance on home video or cable.

REASONS TO GO: Kutcher and Heigl are amusing. Selleck and O’Hara just about steal the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: Not a lot of chemistry between the two leads. The action sequences don’t really compete with other summer movies out there.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some comic violence as well as a good deal of sexual innuendo, and a bit of bad language. It’s suitable for teens, but probably not for the really young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming a fight scene, Kutcher accidentally knocked out one of the stunt men with a punch to the head.

HOME OR THEATER: While this is clearly an action movie, it doesn’t have the kind of big action requiring a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Lucky Ones