May 31, 2014

Movie reviews: 'A Million Ways To Die in the West' and 'Malificent'

By Carl Kozlowski *
It’s hard being a parent these days, with 500 channels on television and countless ways for kids to see movies. This weekend, a couple of wildly different movies hit theaters – one, “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” that no kids should be allowed within 500 yards of, and the other, “Maleficent,” that is intended for kids but might terrify those under 8 or 10 years of age.

Let’s start with “Million,” a Western spoof in the vein of “Blazing Saddles,” and is unabashedly aimed at adults, or at least adults with a teenage level of humor. That means it’s filled with casual profanity, as well as bodily function jokes in addition to quite a few graphic descriptions of sex acts and a few prime pieces of politically incorrect ethnic and racial humor.

Yet at the same time, it retains a sweet spirit that makes it hard to be offended if you’re an adult looking for a guilty pleasure good time in the tradition of movies like “There’s Something About Mary,” and there’s actually a few genuinely moral aspects that shine through as well.

Bear with me and I’ll explain.

The movie stars Seth MacFarlane (the creator of “Family Guy” and the 2012 hit movie “Ted,” and he also co-writes and directs) as Albert, a sheepherder living in the wild West in 1882. He’s surrounded by tough men always looking for a gunfight, with the only available women working in the local brothel. Yet Albert can’t shoot worth a darn, and he’s interested in finding true love.

"Million" introduces the audience to Albert on a day in which his longtime girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him in favor of his arch-rival, the far more successful Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), who sports a ridiculous mustache and owns a store that specializes in mustache maintenance products. Utterly frustrated with his pathetic life, Albert is ready to leave for a new life in San Francisco when he saves a beautiful woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) from a bar fight.

He and Anna become fast friends, with Albert pouring his heart out to her but Anna remaining mysteriously quiet about her past. That’s because, unbeknownst to Albert, Anna is the wife of a dangerous bandit named Clinch (Liam Neeson), who had her hide away from him after a gold robbery. Anna is gorgeous but she’s also tomboyish, and teaches Albert to shoot over the course of a week so he can have a gunfight with Foy to win Louise’s heart. But when a member of Clinch’s gang sees her kissing Albert, he suddenly faces a threat from Clinch too.

That’s the basic plot of “Million,” but it’s packed wall to wall with other gags, including a hilarious string of comically shocking sight gags that kill people, including a man who gets gored by a rampaging bull and another man who is crushed by a giant block of ice right as he’s delivering it for the townspeople’s summer satisfaction. There’s also a running gag in which Albert’s virginal best friend (Giovanni Ribisi) keeps agreeing to not have sex with his hooker girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) because, despite her professional willingness to sleep with strangers, they’re churchgoing Christians saving sex between themselves for marriage.

This may make it sound like the movie’s value lies in offending the audience rather than making them laugh, but ultimately the movie’s tone makes it more silly than shocking. In addition, the relationship between the two main characters, Albert and Anna, is rooted in genuine friendship and respect and never devolves into sex but sets an example of noble and romantic love that winds up in happily-ever-after territory.

In fact, for all its raunchy dialogue, “Million” shows just a brief couple moments of implied sex hidden by sheets and no nudity, and the shootouts, bar fights and random deaths are all shown with a maximum of goofiness and a minimum of gore. In one of his showdowns, Albert winds up offering forgiveness rather than gunshots to his rival.

Add it all up, and you’ve got a movie that adults with a very broad sense of humor and who are not easily offended will definitely enjoy, but one that no kids should be exposed to at all.

Maleficent,” on the other hand, stars Angelina Jolie as the evil witch from the classic Disney animated feature “Sleeping Beauty,” in a tale that seeks – like the hit book and Broadway show “Wicked” did with the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” – to tell the full story of what made the villain turn out that way. Jolie is perfect casting in a film that kids will no doubt beg to see, but despite coming from Disney, parents of young kids should be aware that it has some surprisingly intense action sequences.

The movie depicts its title character, Maleficent as a strong but innocent fairy who as a young girl is proud of her impressive wings. She lives in and protects an area known as The Moors, filled with magical creatures and located outside the fringes of a human-run kingdom.The problem is, that kingdom wants to capture The Moors and control both its lush territory and all of its inhabitants. As a child, Maleficent meets a stray human boy named Stefan and the two secretly fall in love, but eventually his desire for power causes him to ignore her and become a henchman of the humans’ king.

When the king offers the throne to any man who can kill Maleficent and thus enable human domination of The Moors, Stefan ruthlessly returns to her and pretends to be in love again. But rather than killing her, he cuts off her wings as she sleeps, taking away her powers and leading her to exact revenge years later with a curse on his newborn daughter.

Maleficent declares that the young girl will fall into a sleep at age 16 that no human can end, so Stefan arranges for three tiny fairies to hide the infant and raise her until she can be safely past her 16th birthday. But Maleficent finds the girl, at first tempted to ruin her childhood but then finding she has a motherly love for her – and that sudden burst of warmth unleashes a string of events that have enormous consequences for both the Moor and the human world.

This storyline is compelling and written at a level that will mesmerize kids yet is also smart enough for adults to enjoy as well. Jolie is fantastic in it, with Elle Fanning bringing a radiant glow to the role of the young girl. Yet parents should be warned that when Maleficent gets angry, she can become truly frightening with special effects to match her spells.

The couple of battle scenes between humans and the Moors’ creatures – including some scary trees that come to forceful life – are also just shy of “Braveheart” in their intensity, albeit without any gore. Overall, despite the fact that there is no profanity or sex involved, the frightening atmosphere and action intensity probably means that the ratings board should have given this a PG-13 rather than a PG. For Catholic parents, it’s a great movie to see with teens and possibly those as young as 10, but too much for really young ones to handle.
Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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