Friday, June 27, 2014

American Me

2.5/4

Starring: Edward James Olmos, Evalina Fernandez, William Forsythe, Daniel Villarreal, Danny De La Paz

Rated R for Strong Violence and Sensuality, Language and Drug Content

I'll give Edward James Olmos credit for one thing: he chose a difficult project for his directorial debut (aside from one episode of "Miami Vice").  The story of the rise and fall of a Chicano gang leader is a complex and deep story, one that would try the talents of many actors, writers and directors.  Unfortunately, Olmos doesn't have the directorial prowess that Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese have (they, of course, directed "The Godfather" trilogy and "Goodfellas," two films that Olmos is clearly trying to emulate here).

Olmos tells the story of Santana (played by Panchito Gomez as a teenager, and Olmos himself as an adult).  As a kid, he and two friends, JD (Steve Wilcox) and Mundo (Richard Coca), started a gang in order to get respect.  After taking a back alley home, they run into another gang, and take refuge in a closed bar.  Arrested for the crime, they are sent to juvenile detention.  There, Santana is brutally raped by another boy (played by Eric Close, who would later go on to star as an FBI agent in "Without a Trace"), and in an act of revenge, kills his attacker.  Now with his future in the adult prison set in stone, Santana and his friends have found the respect that they are looking for.  By the time they are adults, their gang extends to both sides of the prison walls.  Santana is feared and respected by just about everyone.  It isn't until he is released that he realizes that this may not be the idyllic way to live life.

"American Me" touches on a lot of subjects: how prison life breeds criminals who are more extreme when released than they were when they went in, race relations, the need for redemption, the realities of social and economic inequality, and so on.  Needless to say, a film with this breadth and depth needs room to breathe.  Olmos' film clocks in at a hair over two hours.  No one, not even Scorcese or Coppola, could have told this story in two hours (for the record, "The Godfather" movies and "Goodfellas" ran close to 3 hours a piece, give or take about 10-20 mins).  This is one of those movies that probably should have been a miniseries.

If that were the only problem with the film, it would probably still be worth seeing.  Alas, "American Me's" problems run deeper than that.  Character development is minimal.  Apart from Santana, and to a lesser extent, his girlfriend Julie (Fernandez) and another gang member named Little Puppet (Villarreal), we don't know anyone.  For characters who start out as central to the film, JD and Mundo (played by Forsythe and Pepe Serna as adults), have almost no screen time once the film shifts to Folsom Prison.

Still, there is some effective acting to be found in this film.  Edward James Olmos, who is best known as Commander Bill Adama from the "Battlestar Gallactica" reboot, is very good as Santana.  He's smart, and makes his moves like a military strategist.  But as Julie puts it, he's two people: a ruthless gang lord and a sensitive and intelligent human being.  Olmos doesn't miss a beat.  As Julie, Evalina Fernandez is his equal.  Spending time with her is enough to make even the most hardened criminal rethink their life.  Considering what she has to work with, the actress's multi-layered performance is much better than you'd think.  Also worth mentioning is Daniel Villarreal, who plays Little Puppet.  He doesn't have a lot of screen time, and his character isn't particularly important, but his performance as the young kid whose whole life has been in the gang is memorable.

This is a story that Olmos wanted to tell, and it's worth telling.  Just not in this movie.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Casablanca

4/4

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson, S. Z. Sakall, Peter Lorre

Rated PG for Mild Violence

What can I say about "Casablanca" that has not already been said?  One of the most famous, if not the most famous movies of all time ("Gone with the Wind" and "The Godfather" give it a run for its money), there is little that an amateur film critic like me can add to the multitude of myths (such as the one where Ronald Regan, Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan were the original choices for the leads...this was planted in the news to keep the actors' names in the press) that stemmed from the film.

It's probably best to start with how modern the movie is.  Putting it simply, the movie has aged tremendously well.  Director Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Arthur Edeson made a visually dynamic movie that captures the eye as well as a Michael Bay film (although this is completely unlike anything Bay has done).  Each shot is carefully chosen and superbly constructed.  Many older films (such as "Swing Time," due to budget and/or technical limitations, look plain and unsophisticated.  That's not the case here.

The reason I say this is to assure viewers who are hesitant about watching older movies because of the ones that haven't aged well that this is a movie that they'll love.  I don't think it's possible to watch this movie and not fall under its spell (then again, Wes Anderson's films make big money...).  The performances are strong, the characters are never less than compelling, and there's something for everyone: suspense, humor, and of course, romance.  Putting it succinctly, "Casablanca" is just great storytelling.  And that will always carry great weight in the success of movies.

The films takes place during the early days of WWII, days before Pearl Harbor.  Casablanca is an African city that is the last stop for Europeans on their way to Lisbon, Spain, where they will be able to flee to America.  It's run by Captain Renault (Raines), whose only alliance is to whom he can profit the most from.  His friend is Rick Blaine (Bogart), who runs a bar in town.  Despite everything that goes around him, Rick firmly refuses to get involved in any political discourses.  That all changes when an old flame, Ilsa Lund (Bergman) shows up with her husband, Victor Lazlo (Henreid), in Casablanca.

One of the many reasons "Casablanca" works is because of the performances.  Humphrey Bogart is as much an icon as he is an actor.  With his gravelly voice and sagging face, he's impossible to mistake for anyone else.  But the man is a fine actor, as can be evidenced by the challenging role of Rick that he hits out of the park.  Rick is a cynic who makes everyone believe that he doesn't care about anyone or anything.  But he does, as can be evidenced by his love for Ilsa (and his helping of a young couple get enough money for visas out of Casablanca).  His co-star, screen goddess Ingrid Bergman is wonderful as Ilsa.  She's beautiful and sexy, but is torn between two men.  Bergman lights up the screen, and it's not hard to see why Rick would fall for her.  For all the chemistry the two have, Bogart and Bergman had almost no relationship off set, barely speaking to each other when the cameras weren't rolling.  This was also their only film together.

The other two actors, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, are just as good.  Paul Henreid plays the obligatory romantic rival, but gives the character personality and life; the role may be required, but the character is not.  Henreid did not want the role, but was loaned to Warner Brothers against his will, and was worried that playing a supporting role would kill his career as a romantic lead.  He was also the cause of some on-set tension; he considered Bogart to be a "mediocre" actor and Bergman said he was a "prima donna."  Claude Rains is delicious as the corrupt Renault, who does nothing to hide his lack of loyalty to any cause or person; everyone knows he'll do anything for the right price.  Renault is the film's most colorful character, and Rains (who was nominated, but did not win, an Oscar for his performance) plays him as such.  He also has some of the film's wittiest lines.

Hardly anyone mentions the director, Michael Curtiz.  It's strange, since Curtiz had a directorial career that spanned nearly 50 years.  He directed 12 films with action star Errol Flynn and 8 with Humphrey Bogart).  This is no mere "lucky break" for him either; he won a Best Director Oscar for this film after having been nominated 3 previous times.  The film is the perfect balance of tone; it keeps the same mood throughout, but is able to add in humor and suspense for seasoning without it seeming to be grafted on.

Still, the best way to know how amazing this movie is would be to simply put it in the DVD player and enjoy this classic masterpiece.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

2/4

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Kieran Culkin, Jodie Foster, Jena Malone, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jake Richardson, Tyler Long

Rated R for Language, Sexual Content, and Youth Substance Abuse

There are some elements of "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" that work, and there are some that don't.  The minuses of the film more than outweigh the positives, but at least it's not a complete disaster, thanks to some effective performances.

This is a coming-of-age story, and those are a dime-a-dozen.  Done well, such as "The Way Way Back" or "Black Irish," they can be rich, rewarding experiences.  Done on autopilot, the best they can hope to be is watchable.  Sadly, it's the latter route that director Peter Care (making his first, and thus far only, narrative film) chooses to tell the story based on the novel by Chris Fuhrman.

Four friends are the troublemakers at Saint Agatha's, a private Catholic school in Savannah, Georgia (only iMDb identifies this...note to filmmakers: make sure that your film does a better job of setting up the plot than the blurb on the Internet Movie Database).  They are Francis Doyle (Hirsch), a talented artist, his best friend Tim Sullivan (Culkin), whose motto is "serious trouble beats serious boredom," and Wade Scalisi (Richardson) and Joey Anderson (Long).  They write a comic book together about their alter-egos, "The Atomic Trinity," whose nemesis, Nunzilla, is based on their teacher, Sister Assumpta (Foster).  Tim devises a prank where they will drug a cougar, haul it to the school in a box, and unleash it in Assumpta's classroom.  Friction occurs when Francis falls for Margie Flynn (Malone), who has a dark past, and when Sister Assumpta finds their comics.

The performances are effective, but the script that they are given doesn't allow them the latitude to really do much with their characters.  Perhaps it's because Fuhrman died of cancer before the final draft was completed.  The interaction between the characters is effectively realized, and the scene involving the stolen statue is amusing.  However, there are others, such as the one involving a dying dog, that ring false.

Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin are quite good as the two leads.  Both are underrated actors, and they save the film from being a real trial.  Hirsch ably portrays Francis, whose hormones cause him to wilt in front of Margie, while Culkin relishes playing a troublemaker.  Both have their stiff moments (partly due to the script), but they have good chemistry.  Jena Malone inhabits the skin of a complex character, but the script limits her severely.  There's just not enough for Malone to work with.  Jodie Foster, who co-produced this film through her production company, Egg Pictures, is able to transcend the limits of her character, who until the end is pure caricature.  Vincent D'Onofrio doesn't have a lot of screen time (probably for the best, in my opinion), while Richardson and Long don't make much of an impression (they're not that important, anyway).

Director Peter Care doesn't have a good feel for how to play some of the scenes.  Some do land fairly well, but most don't.  They either run too long or too short, or simply fail to generate the expected emotional response.  Of greater concern is how he handles the subject matter of incest.  There are times when he attempts (with limited success) to show how messy and confusing it can be for all parties involved, but ultimately it's treated as a gimmick and dropped as soon as it's no longer necessary for the story.  Not every movie that deals with it has to be as bleak or unflinching as "The War Zone," but surely it deserves a better treatment than the way Care handles it.

Ultimately, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" comes across as an after school special (the bland look of the film doesn't help matters) rather than a truly affecting film.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Rover

0.5/4

Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson

Rated R for Language and Some Bloody Violence

"The Rover" is one of those movies that gives independent movies a bad name.  There's no plot, no character development, not much action, and plenty of characters spouting senseless profundities and staring off into space.  Yep, that's entertainment!

The film takes place ten years after society collapsed, although so little is done with this idea that it could have been set in the Australian outback and only one or two lines of dialogue would change.  A drifter named Eric (Pearce) has wandered into a gas station/bar/dollar store/whatever else it needs to be.  Right outside, a group of criminals (thieves?) are racing down the road.  One, named Henry (Scoot McNairy), has been shot in the hand and is whining about leaving his brother behind, even though everyone else thinks he was shot dead.  They fight, and the car flips over.  This leads to the only entertaining part of the movie, in which we see the car skid down the road on its roof at full speed while Guy Pearce doesn't even bother to look at it.  The car gets stuck (how it became right side up after that, I'm not sure), so they steal another car.  That car turns out to belong to Eric.  Eric gets their car free and goes after them.  They beat him up after a standoff.  Then he goes to find Henry's brother, Rey (Pattinson), who is actually still alive.  Eric forces Rey to lead him to where Henry and his gang is under the threat of death.  Rey takes him.

That's the whole movie.  Sad to say, the above makes it sound much more interesting than it actually is.  Who in the right mind thought this would be a good idea for a movie?  A short film...possibly.  But a movie that pushes two hours?  Not a chance.  A two hour movie needs more than this to be compelling.  Much more.

Guy Pearce acquits himself reasonably well under the circumstances.  Pearce is a wonderful actor who is engaging to watch even in the worst movies, such as "Animal Kingdom" and "Lawless."  As bad as those movies were, they were masterpieces compared to this.  His co-star, Robert Pattinson, is less impressive.  Pattinson has been desperately trying to leave his "Twilight" past behind him, but he's choosing bad projects.  I don't think anyone saw his period piece drama, "Bel Ami" (which he starred alongside the likes of Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman, and Kristen Scott Thomas), and his first movie for David Cronenberg, "Cosmopolis," is supposedly as bad as this movie.  Only "Water for Elephants" did well.  I only saw the first two "Twilight" movies and this one (plus "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," although he was on screen for so little time in that movie that I don't think it counts), and I think with the right script and director, he could do a passable job as an actor.  But here, with this empty script and a director whose ego is apparently as big as Wes Anderson's, he's sunk.  Rey is irritating and Pattinson's performance is awkward, although that's probably the fault of the director since he seems under-directed.

I've heard that this is a neo-noir film, and it seems like it.  Director David Michod is clearly trying to make a gritty movie, but the film has no sense of atmosphere.  Even if it did, it would be sunk with a script where absolutely nothing happens.  Seriously, the whole movie goes like this.  Eric and Rey drive.  They talk.  They drive some more.  They talk some more.  And occasionally someone gets shot.  That's it.  That's the whole movie.

Critics have been praising this movie left and right, which the distributor is using to build anticipation.  That doesn't surprise me.  This is one of those bad movies that critics love just to prove to each other how smart they are.  The characters talk but say nothing and without any emoting, and the film spends an unbelievable amount of time watching Guy Pearce stare intensely at something.  Audiences haven't bought into it because the ones who have seen it have realized it for what it actually is: a really bad movie.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Signal

2.5/4

Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Laurence Fishburne, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp

Rated PG-13 for Some Thematic Elements, Violence and Language

"The Signal" almost works.  I can't in good conscience recommend it outright, but it is compelling and strongly acted.  It will appeal most to those who love the "mindfuck" genre.  This is one of those movies that screws with your head.

Three friends, Nic (Thwaites), Hayley (Cooke) and Jonah (Knapp) are on their way to California.  Their main purpose is to take Hayley to California (for reasons that are never identified), but Nic and Jonah have an additional purpose.  A hacker named Nomad hacked into MIT's networks, including their own, and pinned the blame on them.  They want to find him, but in order to do so, they're forced to play a creepy game of cat and mouse.  He leads them to an out of the way house where something happens.  The next thing Nic knows is that he's woken up in a hospital and is being interrogated by a man in a hazmat-like suit.  The man calls himself Dr. Damon (Fishburne).  Damon tells Nic that he and his friends were exposed to an alien substance and may be contaminated.  Nic wants to know where he is and what happened to his friends, but Damon is oblique and evasive.  Now Nic's only focus is to find his friends and escape.

Director William Eubank directs this film as a mystery.  We don't know anything more than Nic does.  Where is he?  Why is he there?  What do Damon and the others want with him?  Eubank keeps the focus on these questions, which keeps things from getting too complicated.  Fortunately, they're more than enough to drive the plot.

The performances are good.  The two leads are Brenton Thwaites and Laurence Fishburne, and they do great work.  This is Thwaites coming out year (he already starred in "Oculus" and has the lead in "The Giver" and a role in "Ride," Helen Hunt's sophomore outing behind the camera.  Thwaites is excellent as Nic; he's focused and determined, but more importantly, he's smart.  Laurence Fishburne is probably one of the few actors who could have played this role (the $4 million budget notwithstanding).  Like Nic, Damon smart too, but he's also dangerous.  Fishburne straddles the line beautifully.  Olivia Cooke is also good as Hayley, Nic's newly-ex girlfriend, but her screen time is limited.  Beau Knapp is the least impressive, and is forgettable when he is not onscreen.  Part of this is due to the lack of time he has on screen, but Knapp fades into the background (the only thing really memorable about him is that he reminds me of Josh Saviano, who played Paul Pfieffer in "The Wonder Years"...their similarity in appearance is uncanny).

"The Signal" is not an action film.  Those who get bored by anything not directed by Michael Bay or one of his contemporaries will be bored here.  This is a slowly but deliberately paced thriller.  Eubanks draws us in through atmosphere and mood.  There's plenty of slow-motion (mostly used effectively) and flashbacks.  However, while this enhances the film's mysteriousness and creepy factor, it distances us from the characters.  I didn't really care about anyone to a large extent, and that limits the film's effectiveness.  Additionally, Eubank's stylistic choices are sometimes excessive, which takes it to Steve McQueen (the director of last year's Best Picture winner, "12 Years a Slave") territory.  It's not as pretentious since Eubank is focused on telling the story, but it comes close.

The film's plot is not airtight.  While many movies of this nature reveal holes post-viewing, there are some obvious ones while the film is unspooling.  And the ending, while somewhat surprising, is not properly set up and raises more questions than it answers.

Still, I was engaged throughout the film, and only checked my watch once or twice.  That's saying something, right?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

22 Jump Street

3/4

Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jimmy Tatro, Jillian Bell, Peter Stormare

Rated R for Language Throughout, Sexual Content, Drug Material, Brief Nudity and Some Violence

"22 Jump Street" is a comedown from the first installment, which made my Top 10 list two years ago.  The first one made me laugh so hard that my sides hurt.  Despite having a sharp satirical edge, this one produced more smiles and knowing grins rather than full-bellied laughs, although there are more than a few of those.

After the events of the first film, Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) are normal cops again.  They've just gone after a drug lord named The Ghost (Stormare), although he slipped away.  Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) has once again pulled them back into the old unit (now called 22 Jump Street after the Koreans bought back their church).  With a bigger budget, he's sending them to college in to find who is making and supplying a new drug that cost the life of a student.  Jenko infiltrates a frat house and a football team after he suspects that his new friend Zook (Russell) is the dealer, while Schmidt finds himself attracted to Maya (Stevens), an art major who knew the deceased.  But their paths are taking them into two different directions, and as a result, they're growing apart.

In a way, "22 Jump Street" is like "Scream 2," in the sense that it knows its a sequel and has a lot of fun poking fun at the conventions.  Romantic comedies also get their just desserts too.  But I think that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who were behind the original film and this year's sleeper hit, "The Lego Movie," want us to form an emotional attachment with the characters.  It's a difficult thing to accomplish, and this film doesn't quite reach that level.  No-holds barred satires are not meant to be places where the characters grow on us; they're there to lead us through the jokes.

That's not to say that this movie is devoid of humor.  It isn't.  There's plenty of it to be found, but it displays a softer edge than the first one, and as a result, most of the laughs aren't as big.  When it holds nothing back, such as the scenes with Dickson, the film is hilarious.  When it's going for drama (such as it is), the laughs are smaller.

Speaking of Dickson, he's the reason I'm still recommending the film.  He's front and center for the film's funniest bits, which I won't reveal, since shock is what turns them into such hearty guffaws.  Ice Cube has long proved that he understands how to get a laugh, and that hasn't changed.  Like the first film, he's loud, angry and profane, and the film is all the better for it.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum slide easily back into their roles.  They work well together, which carries the film through its dead spots.  The film acknowledges the homoerotic undertones in their relationship (and highlights them between Jenko and Zook, who might as well be wearing a sign that says "closet case"), but it does so in a mature manner (as far as mature goes for this sort of thing).  It's not "highlighted" any more than the other material.  It makes the joke and moves on, and in a refreshing way, it doesn't come from an area of fear or discomfort.  In fact it's the opposite (Jonah Hill is a staunch supporter of gay rights, his slip of the tongue to a paparazzi excepting).  Ice Cube is a certified scene stealer, but the other actors are adequate only for the film's purposes.  I don't see them becoming stars any time soon.

I'm recommending the film for two reasons: Ice Cube and the end credits, which skewer Hollywood's obsession with sequels and franchises.  It's pretty clever and very funny.  If you liked the first one, see it.  If not, well, it's not a classic.  But see it anyway.  Considering what passes for comedy this year, it's a good pick.

Edge of Tomorrow

3/4

Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence, Language and Brief Suggestive Material

"Edge of Tomorrow" requires that the viewer pay attention to what is going on in the film.  It's not as dense as say "Inception," but those who spend their time texting during the movie (shame on you!) will get lost.  It is, after all, a time travel story, albeit an unorthodox one.

Earth has been invaded by aliens known as mimics.  They're like the sentinels from "The Matrix" trilogy, only much faster and more aggressive.  They're also almost impossible to stop, and have overtaken most of Europe.  There is one ray of hope, and her name is Rita Vrataski (Blunt), a woman who led the humans to victory in Verdun.

A general by the name of Brigham (Gleeson) intends to send an army reporter to sell an invasion into France, one that will cost many lives.  That man is Bill Cage (Cruise), who isn't keen to risk his life for such a task.  When he refuses, Brigham has him arrested, knocked out, and sent to the front lines as an infantryman.  Cage is branded a coward and sent to an almost certain death in a mechanical outfit that he doesn't know how to use.  When he kills one of the mimics, its blood gets all over him and he suddenly finds himself waking up a day earlier.  Once he gets past his confusion and uses it to his advantage, he runs into Rita, who knows all about this new condition.  She has a plan to use to put an end to the war for good.

The set-up may sound complicated, but director Doug Liman presents it in a straightforward fashion that will make it impossible to get lost if you're paying attention.  He follows the most essential rule for a movie that plays with time: the "kiss" rule (keep it simple, stupid).  He doesn't allow the story to get bogged down in paradoxes and mumbo-jumbo.  Liman also establishes a set of rules about what can and cannot happen and sticks to them, which is another must for this sort of story.

Liman also doesn't overuse the time-travel device, although he sometimes goes back farther than necessary (we see Cage waking up a few too many times).  This is a minor quibble, however.  Just about every scene reveals a new part of the story, and once things are going in a straightforward manner, he allows them to unfold as such.  The time-travel stuff takes a back seat during the second half of the movie.

The performances are very good, which helps a lot.  It's also nice that the actors are given interesting things to say and do, and characters to play.  This isn't "Pacific Rim," and for that I was thankful.  Tom Cruise has always been a good actor, but never before has he played such a gutless character.  In the beginning, Cage is a spineless coward who has no idea what he is doing, but once he gets more practice, he grows into the action movie hero.  We're with him because we see where he came from.  Emily Blunt gets to do an action movie role, which hasn't been offered to her before.  She seems like an odd choice, but as the tough-as-nails Rita, she fits right in without a flat moment to be found.  Blunt gives the character a sense of vulnerability that makes her worth caring about.  Cruise and Blunt also have a good romantic chemistry together, which is seasoning on the cake.  Bill Paxton (where has he been?  Oh yeah, HBO's "Big Love") and Brendan Gleeson provide support, although neither of them has much to do.  That's okay.  This movie is about Cage and Rita.

This isn't a perfect summer movie, but at least it has people worth caring about and doesn't rely completely on its special effects (which are impressive, by the way).

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Ice Cream Man

1/4

Starring: Clint Howard, Justin Isfeld, Anndi McAfee, JoJo Adams, Mikey LeBeau, Olivia Hussey

Rated R for Strong Horror/Terror and Gore, and for a Brief View of a Sexual Image

What do you get when you have a porn director making a narrative film starring B-movie actor Clint Howard?  Pretty much what you'd expect.

This movie is pretty bad, although I'd be lying if I said that there aren't worse movies out there ("Identity Thief," "Ben & Arthur," etc.).  Just about everything in this movie is lousy, from the acting, to the pacing, to the incessant and repetitive musical score that sounds either like the music from an ice cream truck or a really bad porno.  This isn't a movie I recommend seeing.

Gregory (Howard) is the Ice Cream Man in a small town that only exists in "American Beauty."  It would be idyllic if the adults weren't self-centered imbeciles who were only concerned with who was sleeping with who.  Anyway, Gregory has a nasty habit of stealing kids and going Sweeny Todd on the local populace.  A group of kids who call themselves the Rocketeers: Johnny (Isfeld), Heather (McAfee), Tuna (Adams) and Small Paul (LeBeau) think it's the Ice Cream Man, and after two cops (Jan-Michael Vincent and Lee Majors II) don't believe them, they intend on proving it.

"Ice Cream Man" is a horrible cross between two polar opposite genres: the slasher movie and the kiddie adventure.  There's a tremendous amount of gore (including cannibalism), and yet the heroes act like they're in "The Goonies" or "Richie Rich."  They match wits with a serial killer and the movie acts like it's an after school special.  Just what audience is this movie meant for?  Bad movie connoisseurs?  Masochists?

Naturally, a movie with this premise couldn't possibly be taken seriously, so the film is billed as a horror comedy.  Unfortunately, it's not all that funny either.  It's not that it's not funny (although it's not), but the humor isn't there.  The film was co-written by David Dobkin (from a story he created), who would later go on to direct "Wedding Crashers" and "The Change-Up."  Considering how lacking in humor I found those two films to be, maybe I missed something (the flowers had an opportunity to be funny, but it's given a natural explanation).

The acting is flat.  Clint Howard, who has shown promise as a character actor over the years, does what he can, but it's not much.  The quartet of child actors are bland; they're never convincing, but they're not insufferably irritating either.  Former Juliet Olivia Hussey gives new meaning to the term "over-the-top" as Nurse Wharton, Gregory's ex-nurse/landlord/caretaker.  The supporting cast includes David Naughton, the hero from "An American Werewolf in London," David Warner, who would later play the nasty butler in "Titanic," and ex-TV star Jan-Michael Vincent.  None of them make much of an impression.

From a directorial standpoint, Paul Norman (billed as Norman Apstein) has a long way to go before he can make even a halfway decent movie.  The film looks like shit.  It's as if he was an ice cream man himself and made this movie with the most expensive camera he could find on his measly budget.  It's also technically primitive, with jump cuts, editing gaffes and poorly framed shots.  And coming from his background, it's unthinkable that none of the adults gets naked.  Seriously man, that should be a no-brainer for you.

This movie should be sent to a cold dark place, only away from all the ice cream.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Chef

3.5/4

Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Sofia Vergara, Oliver Platt, Scarlett Johannsen, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downy Jr.

Rated R for Language, including Some Suggestive References

It is a rare thing for a filmmaker's personal project to see the light of day.  Movies are expensive to make, even if the stars are willing to forgo their usual huge salaries to appear in it.  "Chef" is one such case, and it deserves to be seen.  Despite the star power, it doesn't have a lot of money to get its name out there, so I'll gladly fill the role of cheerleader for this wonderful film.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is a devoted cook in a Los Angeles restaurant.  An important food critic (Platt) is coming to review the restaurant.  Carl wants to cook him a new meal to die for, but his boss (Hoffman) wants him to stick with the usual because it sells (the fact that this material rings true means it has to be based on personal experience for a filmmaker like Favreau).  Faced with the loss of his job, Carl agrees, and the restaurant gets a terrible review.  After inciting a flame war and further embarrassing himself in a public meltdown that goes viral, Carl loses his job.  His ex-wife (Vergara) drags him to Miami for a vacation where he can get to know his son Percy (Anthony), but she has ulterior motives: she wants him to get a food truck from her ex-husband (Downey Jr.) and start his own business making his own food.  So with the help of his friend and line cook Martin (Leguizamo) and Percy, they head back to LA serving delicious food as they go.

The divide between doing what we love and doing what is the most profitable is something that is faced by everyone, and for many that divide is huge.  Carl loves to cook, but the need to do the same dishes over and over again is making him miserable, as his hostess friend Molly (Johannsen) tells him.  But as he begins to do his own thing, he grows much, much happier...and bonds with Percy.

There are two real plotlines (more of character relationships, actually) in this movie: Carl's journey to personal fulfillment and his relationship with Percy.  The former is the most effective.  The latter works on a mental level, but Favreau and Anthony don't have much chemistry, so I didn't have much of an emotional investment in their relationship.

The acting is strong.  Favreau is great as Carl.  We feel his inner struggle and his hesitance at following his dream.  It's a huge risk, but when he's all out of options, it's the only thing he can do.  But Favreau doesn't have the charisma for a leading role, which hinders our emotional attatchment to him.  John Leguizamo is also very good as Carl's sidekick; he always has an air of mischief and sense of fun that makes him impossible not to like.  Emjay Anthony is also very good; he's not too cute or precocious, which is a good thing.  His intelligence and desire to bond with his father make him endearing.  Sofia Vergara steals her scenes as Inez.  She's luminous and despite being divorced, still loves Carl.  The other big members of the cast only have token screen time, with Downey only appearing in one scene.

One element of the film that is worth mentioning is the use of social networking.  It's used in a realistic way that fuels the story and the character arcs.  Favreau handles this aspect beautifully; there's no sense of contrivance or heavy-handedness.

If there's any flaw with the film, it's that it's a little too understated.  I didn't have a swing in my step and I my mouth wasn't watering at all the good-looking food on screen.  A little more manipulation would probably have served the film better.

As good as the film is, I see it making a bigger splash when it hits DVD.  This kind of film doesn't have the drawing power of many movies, either in content (the film's primary target audience is adults) or in marketing, and it will probably work better in a more intimate setting.  Nevertheless, I don't hesitate to recommend seeking this film out to anyone who is interested (or not).

Rio 2

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, Andy Garcia, Jemaine Clement, George Lopez, Miguel Ferrer, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Kristen Chenoweth

Rated G

I went in to "Rio 2" expecting a train wreck.  I hated the first one, so I guess I was biased.  But I was surprised.  This sequel is not a perfect movie, and I can't recommend it, but it contains some moments of effective comedy (one of which, involving a hungry panther, caused me to howl with laughter).

After the events of the first film, the last two blue macaws on Earth, Blu (Eisenberg) and Jewel (Hathaway) have settled in Rio exotic bird sanctuary together to raise a family.  They have three kids: Carla (Rachel Crow), Bia (Amandla Stenberg) and Tiago (Pierce Gagnon).  But Linda (Mann), Blu's former owner, and Tulio (Santoro), her ornithologist husband, think they have found more members of Blu and Jewel's kind, and if so, the area will be protected.  Inspired by this news, Jewel and the kids set off to find them, accompanied by a reluctant Blu.  Also on their trail is Nigel (Clement), a cockatoo who wants revenge against Blu for making him unable to fly.  There's more bad news too, as a logging crew (led by a man voiced by veteran tough guy Miguel Ferrer) is on its way to the Elysium where the blue macaws live.

If that sounds like a lot of plot, that's because it is.  The film is overstuffed to the extreme and that's it's fatal flaw.  When the film focuses on the birds, the film is on solid ground.  The other stuff, not so much.  The worst is the stuff with Linda and Tulio.  They're boring and irritating, but director Carlos Saldanha wisely keeps their time on screen limited.

The voice acting varies.  Eisenberg and Hathaway are their usual reliable selves and rekindle the chemistry they had in the first film.  Andy Garcia is unrecognizable as Jewel's father, who takes an almost immediate dislike to Blu (probably because he never does anything right...or it might be the fanny pack that he has on him).  Jemaine Clement is quite funny as Nigel, who's forced to put up with a poison frog named Gabi (Chenoweth) who is in love with him (how he feels about her is unclear until the end however, and that's a bad thing).  Their friends from Rio, Rafael (Lopez), Nico (Jamie Foxx) and Pedro (will.i.am) are forgettable and unnecessary.

Also disappointing is the music.  As if the film weren't bloated enough, the filmmakers had to add musical numbers to.  That wouldn't be bad (I'm personally fond of musicals, although that may be my gay side...ha ha) if they were any good.  Unfortunately, most are generic R&B numbers (which is definitely not my favorite genre).  The traditional numbers are effective, but the only ones that stand out are the Carnival auditions, which are quite funny.  The standout is Nigel's audition of "I Will Survive," which is the second funniest bit in the movie.

At least the film isn't too long.  The best stuff is the Carnival auditions, but those only take up a fraction of the screen time.  The other stuff, such as the environmental encroachment, has been done better in other movies like "FernGully: The Last Rainforest" and "Avatar" (the climax is a less violent version of James Cameron's big battle, and it suffers by comparison).

The kids in the audience seemed to like it, but unlike the best family movies (such as the stuff from Pixar), there's not much for adults.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Maleficent

2.5/4

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Kenneth Cranham

Rated PG for Sequences of Fantasy Action and Violence, including Frightening Images

Let me state up front that "Maleficent" is not a bad movie.  There are parts of the movie that work and Angelina Jolie gives a better performance than the script deserves.  It takes chances and while not all of them work, it's still interesting.

As is obvious, the film is "Sleeping Beauty" from the other side of the fence.  Instead of having Aurora be the heroine, it's the villain, the witch Maleficent.  It's an interesting concept, and screenwriter Linda Woolverton sidesteps the pitfall of merely telling the same story.  Although it keeps the main thrust of the well-known fairy tale, much is different.

The film starts out with the land divided in two.  The Moors is an idyllic land where the fantasy creatures live, and is next door to the human kingdom.  A young fairy named Maleficent (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, Angelina Jolie's daughter) falls in love with a human boy named Stefan (Michael Higgins).  Things are great when they are children, but after Stefan's ambitious father, King Henry (Cranham) is defeated in battle, the king says that whoever kills Maleficent will inherit the throne.  Stefan uses his relationship with her to betray her and steal her wings.  Needless to say, she is deeply hurt by this and when her cohort, the shape-shifting Diaval (Riley) tells her that Stefan has had a child, she curses it.  After her three fairy godmothers take it into the woods to keep her out of  Maleficent's clutches, she develops a bond with the young Princess Aurora (Fanning), who doesn't know about the curse.

The set-up is the film's weakest link.  It's not strongly scripted enough to really involve, which is ironic since Linda Woolverton wrote a number of Disney classics like "Beauty and the Beast" and and "The Lion King."  There's also no chemistry between the young lovebirds, which doesn't help matters either.  Pretty much anything that deals with King Stefan doesn't work.  But when the film concentrates on Maleficent's shifting feelings for Aurora, the film takes off.  This stuff works, mainly due to the superlative work of Angelina Jolie.

I think that Angelina Jolie is the only person who could have played the character of Maleficent.  Not only is she an exceptional actress, her exotic looks hint at darkness that adds layers to the character.  Jolie saves many of the scenes, and in fact nearly saves the film.  At first, she despises Aurora because of what Stefan did to her, but her maternal instincts quickly overpower her.  Jolie gives a better performance than the script deserves, and we can feel her inner conflict.

The other cast members are less impressive.  Sharlto Copley is awful; he's never convincing as King Stefan.  Copley can play a villain, as evidenced by anyone who saw last year's "Elysium," but he is sorely miscast in the role of the king.  Elle Fanning also disappoints.  Fanning can act, but the script defeats her.  The three bumbling fairies, whose names have been changed, are as often irritating as they are funny.

The film was directed by Robert Stromberg, a visual effects artist who won Oscars for his work on "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland."  It's not a hatchet job, that's for sure.  It OD's on CGI and special effects, which is usually the case for a massive budgeted movie like this.  But unlike, say, "Lord of the Rings" or "Pirates of the Caribbean" (which he also worked on), it looks like cheesy CGI a la "Sherlock Holmes."  Every frame appears to either have or be obviously touched up by computers.  It's also dark and grimy but not very atmospheric.  The scale feels depressingly small; Stromberg lacks the vision to truly expand the scope.

Like I said.  This isn't a terrible movie, but with Woolverton writing the script, and Don Hahn (who produced "Beauty and the Beast") behind the film, one would have thought that this would have been better.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sleeping Beauty

3/4

Starring (voices): Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, Barbara Luddy, Eleanor Audley, Bill Shirley, Mary Costa

Not Rated

Snow White.  Sleeping Beauty (aka Princess Aurora).  Cinderella.  You know them all, don't you?  They're the Disney princesses.  I haven't seen "Cinderella" since I was a kid, but neither of the other two has aged well (apart from film enthusiasts, I can't recommend "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves").  "Sleeping Beauty" isn't as good as the films from Disney's Golden Age (i.e. "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Lion King") but it's still entertaining.

In the 14th century, there lived a king and queen.  After many years, they finally had a child they named Aurora.  She will be betrothed to the son of the king's best friend, a young lad named Philip.  Three fairies, Flora (Felton), Fauna (Allen), and Merryweather (Luddy), bestow gifts upon her.  But a witch named Maleficent (Audley) was not invited the the ceremony welcoming Aurora into the kingdom.  Out of spite, she curses Aurora: on her 16th birthday, she'll touch a spinning wheel and die.  The fairies can't take back the curse, but they can make it so that instead of dying, she falls into a deep sleep.  In order to prevent this from occurring, they take the child into the woods and raise her themselves.  But as Aurora's (Costa) 16th birthday approaches, Maleficent still lies in wait.

The story for the film could charitably be called thin, and the character development is even more so.  I've seen trailers with more complex plots and characterizations.  Much of this can be attributed to the fact that animation was a painstaking and difficult process in 1959 when the film was made, but that doesn't make it hold up any better.

For a movie about a princess, it would be interesting to note that not only is Aurora not the central character of the film, she has the least amount of screen time (not including two brief songs, she has 18 lines (the least amount in a Disney film after Dumbo in, well, "Dumbo."  Instead, the main characters are the well-meaning if bumbling fairies.  They're pretty funny, but they love Aurora deeply, and that makes them endearing.  Of course, no fairy tale would be complete without a handsome prince, and Prince Philip is handsome enough to make me swoon (the smooth vocals of Bill Shirley enhanced this immeasurably).

Then there's Maleficent, who recently got her own movie starring Angelina Jolie (which I will see tomorrow, and this is why I am reviewing this movie tonight).  She's certainly evil, and she's drawn malevolently enough to give the tiny ones nightmares.  But her motivations are poor to the point where I missed them entirely.  I only realized them after reading the blurb on iMDb; that's how glossed over they are.

Still, it should be said that this film is most definitely entertaining, even though it drags during the middle despite having a skinny running time of 75 minutes.

Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro

2.5/4

Starring (voices): David Hayter, Joan Carol O'Connell, Michael McConnohie, David Povall

Not Rated (contains violence and language)

Perhaps it is because I am not familiar with the TV show or the Monkey Punch comic books upon which the film is based, but I didn't like "Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro" as much as I thought I would.  It's meant to be a fun adventure romp with a likable rogue as the hero who fights the dastardly villain and saves the girl, but it didn't come together for me.

Lupin (Hayter) is a career thief who is on the run from Inspector Zenigata (Povall).  While avoiding his would-be captor, he spies a bride fleeing a car full of shady individuals.  He rescues her, albeit temporarily.  Undaunted, he tries again.  Apparently, she's engaged to be married to Count Cagliostro (McConnohie), an evildoer who makes "goat bills" (counterfeit money) in just about every currency.  The girl, whose name is Clarisse (O'Connell), is heir to a valuable treasure, and the Count will do anything to get his hands on it.  But he won't if Lupin has anything to say about it.

This could have been great fun, and with someone of Hayao Miyazaki's talents, I thought it would be.  There are flashes where it is, and the film is never boring, but it doesn't make the cut.

The primary reason the film fails is because the characters are stick figures.  There's no development of anyone in the film, and through their interaction I got the sense of past histories between them that weren't revealed.  For example, there is a woman in the film named Fujiko (Dorothy Elias-Fahn).  She seems to be an undercover ally of Lupin, but his relationship with her is unexplained.  Ditto for the cohorts that Lupin travels with (whose names I didn't catch).

The voice acting is solid.  Leading the pack is David Hayter, who plays the fun-loving thief.  He's very good, and his energy saves many of the scenes.  Lupin is a cheery, slightly goofy guy whose crimes are more like mischief rather than something that should land him in prison for years.  I'd like to see him in another, better movie.  Joan Carol O'Connell is also good as Clarisse, and I kept thinking of a less independent Sheeta from "Castle in the Sky."  Sadly, Michael McConnohie is pretty generic; he sounds a lot like the voices on your average crappy show on Cartoon Network.  Ditto for David Povall.

I think that Hayao Miyazaki does his best work when he writes from his own brain.  His best films, "Spirited Away," "Princess Mononoke," and "Castle in the Sky" sprang completely from his own pen (this also includes his last (?) film, "The Wind Rises".  His lesser films (if that term is appropriate), like "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Howl's Moving Castle," were adapted from another source.  This film reasserts that belief.

Like I said, some of the scenes do work (particularly the action climax, which reminded me of "The Great Mouse Detective") and some of the humor lands (although, by its nature, it's more likely to produce smiles rather than laughs).  But due to a choppy narrative and non-existent characterization, "Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro" isn't really worthy of Miyazaki's name.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Titus

3.5/4

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Colm Feore, Harry Lennix, Angus Macfayden, Alan Cumming, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Matthew Rhys, Laura Fraser, James Frain

Rated R for Strong Violent and Sexual Images

Although "Titus Andronicus" was William Shakespeare's most popular play when he was alive, it eventually fell out of favor (to the point where some doubted that it was actually written by The Bard).  It wasn't until Laurence Olivier played the part in a 1955 production that it gained favor again.

"Titus," as made by Broadway director Julie Taymor in her film debut, is like "Hamlet" on steroids.  It's a raw, violent and bloody tale of murder and revenge.  In fact, some of what happens is straight out of a horror movie.  For those who think that Shakespeare is dry and dull, you'll change you mind after watching "Titus."

Titus Andronicus (Hopkins) is a beloved Roman general back from war with the Goths.  He has three captives: Tamora (Lange), the queen, her three sons, Alarbus (Raz Degan), Chiron (Meyers) and Demetrius (Rhys) and Aaron the Moor (Lennix).  For religious reasons, Titus kills Alarbus as a sacrifice to the gods causing a grief-stricken Tamora to vow revenge.  Titus is welcomed home by Rome, and asked to become the new emperor by his brother, Marcus (Feore).  Titus declines, instead throwing his favor behind Saturninus (Cumming).  As a gesture of thanks, he selects Titus' daughter Lavinia (Fraser) to be his wife.  Unfortunately, she's already engaged to Bassianus (Frain), so he chooses Tamora instead.  The now-Empress is in a perfect position to punish Titus for the death of her son, and she does so with relish.

This sounds totally Shakespearean, and it is.  The plot is twisty and tragic and has a high body count.  Taymor doesn't revel in the blood, but she's not coy either.  It's not as unique or gripping as some of the Bard's other plays, like "Hamlet" or "The Taming of the Shrew," but it's definitely entertaining nonetheless.

It seems that William Shakespeare is able to bring out the best in an actor.  Anthony Hopkins gives a terrific performance as the title character.  With every rise, there is certain to be a fall, and few are as tragic as Titus's.  This is well-balanced portrayal, despite the fact that Hopkins was so miserable during filming that he considered retiring from acting (he also flipped off the camera after filming his last scene).  Considering the character, I suppose it's inevitable that we are reminded of his most famous character, Hannibal Lecter, and while they're fundamentally different, the connection adds another dimension to his performance.  Jessica Lange, in her first time performing Shakespeare either on film or on stage, is perfectly vicious as Tamora.  She talks sweet, but she's one cold bitch.  Hell hath no woman scorned, indeed!  Colm Feore, a Canadian actor whose considerable talents are constantly overlooked, is in fine form as well as Marcus, who watches his brother's self-destruction with a sense of resignation.  There isn't a weak link in the supporting cast (although Laura Fraser has a few stiff moments), but special mention has to go to Harry Lennix as Aaron.  Tamora is the main antagonist, but the real villain is the Moor.  Posing as a friend to all, the Moor sets out to destroy everyone.  "If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul," he says.  And he means it!

To say that Taymor's vision of the play is "out there" is to understate matters.  This is an extremely weird and visually kinetic interpretation of the play, combining just about everything in to one strange, weird and wonderful movie.  Cars and horses, swords and shotguns, video games and the Colosseum, suits and ancient Roman battle armor.  The film is never boring (story-wise or visually).  It brings to mind stuff from Tarsem (who made "The Cell" and "The Fall").

Shakespeare is often thought of as a chore due to the difficulty of the language and the way it is written.  But like all good productions, its presentation is what saves it or tanks it.  Played straight with no flair, it is indeed a boring experience (Laurence Olivier's dreadful version of "Henry V" comes to mind...it gives Shakespeare a bad name).  Fortunately, "Titus" is a near brilliant production.

Part of the reason is how Taymor has adapted the play.  She keeps the original language, but the lines that she chooses to keep in, and how she presents them, make the play pretty easy to follow.  I was rarely confused, and when I was, I was able to simply sit back and enjoy the great acting and writing.  It was never too long after that before I found my way again.

It may be a little too long, and some elements should have been beefed up, but all in all this is a fine production.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

X-Men: Days of Futures Past

3/4

Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nichoas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Some Suggestive Material, Nudity and Language

The X-Men were interesting because they were so varied.  There were a lot of them, and their powers varied from psychic powers to being able to change form to any person.  The first three were fun, and so was "X-Men: First Class" (from what I remember).  The new "X-Men" movie brings both franchises together, and as far as crossover movies go, it's a lot better than "The Avengers."

That's because this one tells a story instead of remaking a movie that came out a year before (it also helps that Bryan Singer knows what he's doing behind a camera, unlike Joss Whedon).  Unlike movies such as "Man of Steel" or "Pacific Rim," this movie has a plot with complexity.  It's not Shakespeare, but it keeps things interesting.

The movie kind of reads like "Terminator 2: Judgement Day."  In the future, the world is decimated by The Sentinels, a race of machines that were created to hunt down mutants but ended up enslaving the world.  In a last ditch effort, Professor Xavier (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellan) send Wolverine (Jackman) back in time to prevent Mystique (Lawrence) from assassinating Dr. Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), the Sentinels' creator.  You see, Trask kidnapped mutants and experimented on them (to the point where they died), and Mystique wants revenge.  But killing him would show the world that mutants are dangerous and would have put the Sentinel program into production, thus leading to complete devastation.  Wolverine is the only one who can survive the trip back in time, so he must convince the feuding younger versions of himself (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender) to band together to stop Mystique.

There's a lot going on in this movie, and director Bryan Singer avoids falling into the pitfalls that most movies about time travel fall in because he ignores the paradoxes and chaos theory.  Wolverine is in the past to prevent the Sentinel project from realization.  Nothing more is added because nothing more is needed.

The cast ably slips back into their roles, although many have brief appearances.  Singer concentrates on the past because that is where the meat of the story is.  Unfortunately that leaves Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan and the modern-day mutants with not a lot to do (Halle Berry is on-screen for so little time that the only reason I can think of for her to be included was a love letter to fans).  Still, they're in it, and that's good enough.

The film's problems lie at the beginning and the end.  The film's foundation isn't strong enough to lend much weight and urgency to the proceedings.  I never felt the sense of loss that the characters do.  A little more time developing the present-day situation would have made the mission more desperate.  It also robs the ending of a lot of its power.  This has an effect on the meat of the story, but not much.

The climax is also problematic because one of the character's motives for what he does is unclear.  I didn't know what he was trying to achieve, and that left me scratching my head as I was admiring the special effects (which are pretty impressive).

If there is a want of feeling in this movie, it's acceptable nonetheless because the story is engaging nonetheless.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

3/4

Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman

Rated R for Strong Crude and Sexual Content, Language Throughout, Some Violence and Drug Material

After "Ted" became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time and he has three successful TV shows, Seth MacFarlane probably can do whatever he wants (as long as he makes a sequel to "Ted," which he did...it comes out next year).  His newest film, "A Million Ways to Die in the West," is a first for him in a number of respects.  First, it's a Western, a genre that he has occasionally lampooned but never contributed a real entry (even a warped one).  Second, he appears on-screen in the flesh.  While it's not nearly as funny as "Ted," which made my Top 10 list two years ago after it nearly brought me to tears from laughing so hard, it's still funny enough to justify a trip to the theater.

Albert (MacFarlane) is as big of a wimp as they come.  He'd rather try and talk his way out of a duel than actually do some gunfighting.  He's such a wuss that his girlfriend Louise (Seyfried) dumps him for the rich mustache-grooming tycoon Foy (Harris).  After saving her from a bar brawl, Albert meets Anna (Theron), a newcomer in town.  She likes him and agrees to help him win back Louise.  In the heat of the moment, however, he challenges Foy to a duel, only to remember that he doesn't know how to shoot a gun.  As Anna teaches him, they fall for each other.  What Albert doesn't know is that Anna is married to Clinch (Neeson), the most feared gunfighter in the west, and when he finds out about Albert's relationship to Anna, the unassuming sheep herder is in someone else's crosshairs.

MacFarlane brings his usual twisted humor and general wackiness to the proceedings, skewering just about everything he can think of (and that's a lot).  Most of it is successful, including a number of scenes that are guaranteed to bring down the house (my favorite scenes featured a severed foot and a musical number featuring mustached sheep...I'm dead serious).  The biggest problem MacFarlane runs into is the period piece setting.  There are times when the characters talk like modern day people, which creates a disconnect.  For example, Albert makes a joke about the stereotype of black men liking women with big rear ends.  Admittedly, it's a pretty funny joke, but it feels out of place in a movie like this. That being said, it usually works since that's usually what MacFarlane satirizes (the opening credits and the score are a case in point...they're dead ringers for a serious Western).

When I first saw the trailer, it was a little weird seeing MacFarlane on screen.  It was like seeing Brian the dog matched with a different body.  But that faded away quickly and I saw only Albert.  MacFarlane has a gift for comedy, but he also creates a character worth caring about.  As good as he is, the film is stolen from him by Charlize Theron, who has never been more likable.  She never feels out of place in this kind of a movie, and she has good chemistry with MacFarlane (they're good friends offscreen, which probably accounts for this).  Liam Neeson appears to be enjoying himself tremendously as the bad to the bone Clinch, finding the right note between evil and humor.  Amanda Seyfried is always welcome on screen, although she really doesn't have much to do except play the object of Albert's affection; an unknown character actress would have done just fine, although I'll never say no to seeing Seyfried on screen.  Neil Patrick Harris is very good at playing a truly annoying character (that's meant as a compliment, by the way).  Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman play Albert's best friends, and while they're funny enough to earn their scenes (Silverman plays a hooker who sleeps with 10 guys on a slow day but won't have sex with Ribisi because she's a Christian, and Ribisi plays her wimpy boyfriend), but they feel extraneous.

The film is a little long and not as edgy as "Ted," but it's still a lot of fun.