Sunday, June 29, 2014

Maleficent Review: A Most Twisted Take on a Familiar Tale

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Robert Stromberg
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Release Date: May 30, 2014
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D

I'm not really sure where to start with this one.
Maleficent is an... interesting beastie to say the least. A new live-action retelling of the classic Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty (and one that definitely takes advantage of that film's familiar iconography), star Angelina Jolie's storybook style narration immediately establishes the film's mission statement: namely that the familiar story Disney had been telling us for decades was wrong this entire time. No, this was the true story that you never knew before. Now, being a hardcore Disney fan since birth I could tell you that such a statement is a very risky one to say the least, one that could backfire spectacularly with audiences if not executed with both boldness and grace. And if there's anything I can say favourably of Maleficent (aside from the pitch-perfect casting of Angelina Jolie as the title character), it's that it certainly gets that first one down.

The film is split into three acts: the first act presents the origins of Maleficent and why she went bad, the second act is mainly a revised version of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, and the third act has a decidedly different big climax and final battle at the end. There isn't really any way to talk about plot and character in this movie that won't involve SPOILERS, so I just think I ought to disclaim about that before saying anything more.
Okay then, so the story actually opens with Maelficent (Angelina Jolie) as a young girl, a sweet and powerful fairy beloved by all in her realm. But the humans have a (unsurprisingly irrational) hatred of the fairies and their kingdom, so the two sides have a fair level of tensions between them. Maleficent meets the peasant orphan Stephan (Sharlto Copley) as a child and the two become friends and fall in love as they grow older. But Stefan becomes driven by ambition to gain power in the human kingdom, and Maleficent's defiance of the aging king has made her a target, enough so that the dying ruler offers the throne to anyone who can kill her.
And here is where things get dark...
The film's big origin twist (and by far the most controversial element of the film) involves Stefan seducing Maleficent, drugging her drink, and cutting off her wings as a trophy for the king so he can ascend to power. The implications aren't hard to pick up on: Maleficent was essentially date raped by a man she loved and trusted, and furthermore the removal of her wings is symbolic of castration or genital mutilation, the forceful removal of her name source of female empowerment (he tries to kill her at first, but can't bring himself to bring the dagger down- adding an extra layer of male impotency). The sequence itself is undoubtedly the most shocking and powerful in the film, primarily anchored by Jolie's commanding performance- her reactions of shock, pained screams, struggling to walk up again, it all compellingly conveys the dark metaphor. This shell-shocking event kickstarts Maleficent's personal journey as we see her enact revenge on Stephan by cursing his newborn daughter Aurora, only to end up watching over her and ultimately becoming a true mother figure for the sixteen-year old princess (especially since the three fairies charged with caring for her sure as hell can't do it). This mother-daughter bond with Aurora is what allows Maleficent's closed-off, wounded heart to gradually thaw, and eventually lead to her regaining her sense of love and proud womanhood again. Considering just how easily this whole direction could have gone horribly, horribly wrong, it's admirable that it uses this twist to create an effective, fully-fleshed out character arc for our title villain (now reinvented as an antihero).

Jolie is perfectly cast in the title role, and Sam Riley makes for a solid sidekick in Dioval.

If only the overall execution of everything else in the film were better. Instead Maleficent is hugely uneven. The comic relief, the main source of which being the three incompetent fairies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville), often grates rather than amuses. The middle act feels somewhat padded, as if the writers were struggling to come up with filler to bide time before the third-act climax where all the real plot and action happen (and even then the big climax feels oddly underwhelming, at least from an action-based perspective). The dialogue is all over the place, often ranging from decent in one scene to almost cringeworthy in the next (especially when it's trying to be sugary-sweet). The film's tone often shifts awkwardly from dark and sinister to attempts at cutesiness and whimsy that often feel forced and transparent, decidedly at odds with, well, the violence and rape metaphors. This isn't helped by creature design that ranges from uninspired (LotR Ent ripoffs, water pixies) to downright ugly (whatever the hell those subpar-CG troll-esque things are), yet the film still insists that they're apparently supposed to be all sweet and cuddly.

Seriously, I have no clue what the hell this thing is supposed to be. It looks like some rejected Spore creation...

While Jolie does a fantastic job anchoring the film through many of its faults, expertly conveying a balance between wickedness and vulnerability, the rest of the cast isn't quite as up to snuff. Not that there aren't some exceptions- Sam Riley makes a fun sidekick for Maleficent as the shapeshifting raven Dioval, showing some wry charm and a second conscience for our conflicted title character. And Sharlto Copley is appropriately slimy as King Stephan, growling as bellowing as he grows in deranged madness and obsession.  But the rest of the cast is undone by having little to work with. Elle Fanning has proven a great young actress in other films, but her Princess Aurora is just a pretty young face and literally nothing else. She and Brenton Thwaites as Prince Phillip are about as charismatic and interesting as a concrete wall, and the film seems to know it- their characters are literally treated like props for Maleficent to magically freeze and transport from plot point A to plot point B. And while Staunton, Temple and Manville are all fine actresses, they're stuck playing a trio of dolts who prove more annoying than amusing (plus it doesn't help that their CG fairy forms can't decide to look realistic or exaggerated, and just end up looking like creepy victims of the uncanny valley).

Maleficent is a film I can't help but feel very torn on. It has a bold concept and a strong lead performance to anchor it, but lacks a balanced tone and consistent level of quality needed to make it fully click. It's a film I can admire and even respect, but can't genuinely like even though I really wish I could. Judging by its success however it's clear that many have caught on to the film's messages about abuse, motherhood and regaining female empowerment, and I do think those messages are both well-conveyed and valuable to have despite the film's overall messy unevenness. If anything it makes a statement that Disney's upcoming wave of live-action remakes of their animated properties (which will include Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast) may at least have some interesting things to offer after all...

Final Score: 5 / 10

+ Angelina Jolie's commanding, wicked-yet-sympathetic lead performance
+ A bold, subversive and surprisingly dark revision of a classic tale
+ The film gives Maleficent a complex, effective, fully fleshed-out character arc
+ Sam Riley's Dioval proves a fun sidekick foil for our title antihero

- The more cutesy and whimsical moments often clash with the film's predominantly darker themes
- The comic relief (mainly from the three fairies) frequently grates
- The visual effects are somewhat of a mixed bag, and the creature designs range from uninspired to downright ugly
- The film's middle act often sags, feeling like it's mostly biding time for the climax to get underway
- Dialogue quality is all over the place, ranging from solid to cringeworthy
- The big finale is rather underwhelming from an action standpoint

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction Review: Same Old Explosions, (Somewhat) New Coat of Paint

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Li Bingbing, T.J. Miller
Voice Cast for the Transformers (aka the characters you actually care about): Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe, John DiMaggio, Mark Ryan, Reno Wilson
Release Date: June 27, 2014
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D (shot with IMAX 3D cameras)

Transformers: Age of Extinction is a spectacularly dumb movie.
Four movies into director Michael Bay's mega-blockbuster Transformers series this statement must sound beyond redundant, especially since the presence of the Dinobots in this new entry should be a pretty immediate tipoff to that fact. Loved by many general audiences and despised by most critics and film fans, Michael Bay's films have always sharply divided these two since the beginning of his feature film career, and the Transformers movies in particular have become emblematic of this lowbrow/highbrow divide. It's loud, stupid, often crude spectacle, and it sends any respectable or self-respecting film viewer into a spiral of despair when they see just how many boatloads of money the latest one has pulled in at the box office (not to mention the sh**tons of money these movies make off of toy sales and merchandising). It's very much an "us or them" kind of divide, not unlike the duelling factions of Autobot and Decepticon: you're either a fan of these movies (and will most definitely enjoy the rebooted yet still familiar approach that Age of Extinction has to offer), or you will hate them with a fiery passion (in which case I can guarantee all the changes made for the better compared to prior entries still won't change your mind).
Me, I'm more on the fence. I grew up as (and still am) a fan of multiple iterations of the Transformers animated series, even if it's often on a guilty pleasure "cheesy dumb fun" kind of level (though the most recent series, Transformers Prime, is genuinely pretty great). I've played and enjoyed the War for Cybertron game series by High Moon Studios, which showed genuine respect and reverence for the franchise's history. As for the previous Michael Bay Transformers movies I enjoyed the first and third films on a guilty pleasure "trashy yet fun" level, while vehemently despising the second instalment Revenge of the Fallen (still Bay's worst movie to date, and one of the absolute worst Hollywood blockbusters in recent years). I'm never going to defend these movies as "artistic" or even any genuine kind of good films, but part of me has to admit when I have fun in spite of my critical standards, even when it feels trashy and kind of shameful afterwards. And despite its several rebooted changes (many of which are for the better), Transformers: Age of Extinction isn't really any different.
So yeah, I had some fun. What else can I say? Well...

Optimus Prime readies his blade to defend against the impending onslaught of critics...

In terms of plot (aka that thing these movies still technically have), Age of Extinction is distinctly different from the previous entries, yet ultimately rather familiar. In the four years since the attack on Chicago that closed out Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the U.S. government has ceased ties with the Autobots and begun hunting and eliminating the transformers (good and bad) through an elite CIA task force headed by cold-blooded agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer). He then hands the transformers' parts to genius technological billionaire and obvious riff on Steve Jobs Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who has figured out how to use their genetic makeup (called "Transformium"- no, really) to build their own man-made transformers who can remain under government control. However, some of the Autobots are still out there in hiding, as down-on-his-luck Texas robotics inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg- and yes, that's actually his character's name) indadvertedly finds and repairs an injured Optimus Prime. Once the CIA picks up on Optimus' presence Cade and his teenage daughter Tessa (Nikola Peltz) become fugitives from the law who must evade capture and try to take out this new threat to their very livelihood. But Cade, Tessa and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) have more than just human agents and man-made transformers (led by Galvatron) to worry about: Attinger's ace in the hole is Lockdown, a transformer with no allegiance to Autobots or Decepticons, an intergalactic bounty hunter with a massive, fearsome ship of alien relics and captives. Though he works for Attinger now, Lockdown has his own plans involving an ancient "seed" that may be the source of how the transformers first came to be...

Lockdown easily stands as the series' best villain to date (though it's not like he had much competition).

Whereas the previous three films didn't really have much of any kind of message or anything to say aside from "good must stand to fight against evil when it comes, blah blah blah something explosions", Age of Extinction actually does raise a few ideas that hadn't really been raised by the series before. The conflict involves scientific ethics, the dangers of seemingly limitless possibilities, and the notion that some things just shouldn't be invented. Transformium (I seriously can't believe I have to write this with a straight face) can and could accomplish untold wonders, but under the control of someone like Attinger it's only ever going to accomplish bloodshed and destruction. Moreover the film reminds us that contrary to Attinger's cold conviction, the transformers are more than just metal machines, but living, feeling beings who even literally possess souls (aka their "spark"). So the fact that they're being indiscriminately hunted down by people they used to trust actually has some weight to it, and informs the Autobots we have left in that they're much less willing to still put up the good fight. The Optimus Prime we're introduced to here is one angry, wounded and betrayed, and he seems to be sharing the other Autobots' sentiments to abandon humanity. He's a symbol of hope who's lost said hope, and it opens up opportunity for some kind of actual character arc for Optimus as Cade becomes his new link to the human race, another chance to convince him that we're worth saving and, more importantly, worth fighting for. Considering how little growth or character development the stoic leader of the Autobots ever tends to see, the fact that the film at least offers something is appreciated.
Then again, all of these things would be considerably better if the film actually spent much time focusing on or developing them. Instead the film gets so caught up in its huge displays of over-the-top action that by the final stretch it seems to have almost completely forgotten about them. It does effectively set up and establish what the thrust of said action is about, but you'd expect at least a little more time for character development in a film that's 165 minutes long (oh yes, you read that right). The first act plays relatively fine, doing an adequate job establishing the new cast, but once the action kicks into high gear it really doesn't take much time to ease off said gear for the remaining 2 hours. Then again, this is certainly a boon for the many people who got impatient waiting for the big action setpieces they wanted to finally get underway in previous Transformers films. After the first half hour or so you get all that action in spades, without having to wade through at least an hour and a half of crude comic relief hijinks or military fetishism (unlike the previous entries, the U.S. army gets practically no mention at all, and the government is portrayed as either incompetent or villainous rather than patriotically hero-worshipped). Don't get me wrong, the film still has plenty of plot squeezed in (recall the bloated 165 minute runtime), but it often gets distracted from making the most of its characters or whatever ideas and themes it has. We certainly know why everyone's fighting and why the Macguffin ("the Seed") is important, but the implications surrounding the big destructive carnage are often lost in the shuffle.

Transformers 4, also starring Marky Mark, dead weight, and who cares?

Not that the action isn't impressive, mind you: in fact, on a purely technical and filmmaking level this is the best action and direction the series has yet seen. 3D is probably the best thing that's ever happened to Michael Bay, as the format has forced him to restrain his former frenetic rapid-cutting tendencies which at their worst made all the overblown action scenes practically incomprehensible (just try watching the climax of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and tell me you can actually follow everything that's happening. I dare you). Combine that with hugely improved, varied and distinct designs for all the transformers themselves (unlike the previous films, I could unquestionably distinguish which robot was which at any given moment) and the metal-on-metal smackdowns have never looked so good. About 60% of the film was shot with IMAX 3D cameras, and if you're honestly going to go see this then I can attest that is definitely the way to go- you get a massive sense of scale and detail from the frame-encompassing compositions (not to mention sound that may literally shake the earth around you). This is an undeniably admirable film on a technical level, and I say that as someone who is (most decidedly) not a fan of Michael Bay in general.

Plus there's this Autobot who's voiced by John DiMaggio (Bender, Jake the Dog, etc.), if that helps entice you at all...

It also helps that the Autobots finally have an interesting villain to go up against in Lockdown, a skilled and experienced mercenary with no allegiance but to the mysterious "creators" who apparently disapprove of Optimus' desire to protect humanity. Aside from a great design, Lockdown rises above his (kinda pathetic) competition from the previous entries by giving us an antagonist with an air of intrigue who serves a higher purpose than some long-raging civil war yet still distinctly fights for himself in his remorseless pursuit. The extended action setpiece exploring his massive alien spaceship is a big highlight, providing a more otherworldly and enigmatic atmosphere that stands in high contrast to yet another human city getting blown up real good.
Also joining in on the fight is the much-hyped live-action debut of the Dinobots, although many are bound to be disappointed that their screentime is decidedly lacking. After being set up in the early opening scenes, they don't actually pop up onscreen and do, well, what giant robot dinosaurs are wont to do until the last 25 minutes or so of the movie. In fact, they really aren't relevant or necessary to the plot at all- they just show up, do some sweet action stuff, and then go off to do who knows what at the end, presumably waiting to show up again in the next movie. They exist purely as attention-grabbing excuses for more spectacle and nothing more. Then again, any scenes involving fire-breathing robot dinosaurs are way better than none at all, so I guess I'll take what I can get.

Dinobots: so awesome that you don't really care that they basically have no actual reason to be in this movie...

As for the human cast running away from all those technically-proficient explosions, Age of Extinction is (for the most part) a notable improvement for the series. The characters are, as you've probably pieced together, pretty thin and archetypal, but the actors generally make the most of what little they have. Mark Wahlberg leads the way as Cade Yeager (once again, yes, that is his real name), making the most of his gift for combining dopey earnestness with macho action star coolness (even if he's hilariously unconvincing as a robotics scientist). The film smartly carries much of its bloated weight on Wahlberg's shoulders, as he's the perfect kind of actor to anchor a film this over-the-top ridiculous yet frequently straight-faced (it helps that the crude and often all-around terrible comic relief of previous entries is mostly absent this time). Grammer is growling and ruthless as Attinger, while Stanley Tucci gamely commits to Joshua Joyce's perfection-obsessed smugness and bumbling panic. Jack Reynor, a relative newcomer in Hollywood, has been getting his name thrown around a lot in Hollywood casting calls in recent weeks, and it's not hard to see why as he shows a solid mix of wannabe tough-guy machismo and bumbling earnestness that could make him an ideal leading man type in the future (he plays quite well opposite a similarly earnest Wahlberg). The only real weak link in the cast is Nikola Peltz as Cade's teen daughter Tessa. Aside from the playing a whiny, bland, and generally useless character who might as well have the words "Kidnap me!" tattooed on her forehead (not to mention how the film awkwardly- and kind of hilariously- tries to justify sexualizing her 17-year old character), Peltz proves that her godawful performance in the infamously disastrous The Last Airbender wasn't a fluke. Rosie-Huntington Whitely played a better female lead in the last Transformers, and she was a Victoria's Secret model with literally zero acting experience.
Look, if you liked the previous movies (well, the first and third ones, anyway), then you'll more or less know what you're getting into and odds are good that you'll enjoy what you see. My opinion or anyone else's isn't going to matter any which way in that case. On one hand, I cannot in any honest way say this movie is actually "good" in any non-technical-based sense: it's bombastically stupid, practically redefines the words "overlong" and "bloated", shamelessly filled with product placement, and weirdly littered with Asian stereotypes. On the other hand, though? I can't deny that I still had a good deal of fun snickering at all its straight-faced silliness and impressed by its array of robot battles and pyrotechnics, now shot and edited in a way where it genuinely feels huge-scale (not to mention visually comprehensible). It's like going out to party at some popular clubbing spot- it's noisy yet aesthetically pleasing sensory overload, and you have some fun despite the music being trashy, the drinks being even trashier, and the fact that you end up staying waaaay longer than you should have.
That's essentially how I felt walking out of the theatre after seeing Transformers: Age of Extinction in IMAX 3D. My ears and head felt all buzzed and hungover, my ass was sore, my legs felt wobbly walking home, and I was struggling to remember much of what happened in the earlier parts of the movie. It was probably pretty bad, and undeniably bad for me, but I also had more fun than I expected and would feel comfortable admitting. Besides, I've also seen Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, so I know I've had much worse clubbing experiences...

(Probable) Actual Quality Score: 3 / 10


Guilty Pleasure Enjoyment Score: 7 / 10


Final Score: 5 / 10

+ The action scenes sure look fantastic in IMAX 3D, especially now that Michael Bay seems to have learned how to direct and edit in a (mostly) coherent way
+ The cast makes the most of what (embarrassingly little) they have, led by a reliably dopey and earnest (yet still somehow kinda cool) Mark Wahlberg
+ The transformer redesigns look much better than the previous movies
+ The loose semblance of what people often call "plot" in these movies actually tries to do something interesting this time
+ Lockdown is easily the best villain this series has yet had (and his ship is really cool)
+ The terrible "comic relief" of the previous films is mercifully lacking this time around, replaced by a generally darker tone
+ It's a Transformers movie!

- It's a Transformers movie...
INCREDIBLY dumb, even by most Michael Bay standards
-  I don't care how many transformers, robot dinosaurs and explosions you have, it still doesn't excuse a preposterously bloated 165-minute (2 and 3/4 hours!!) running time
- Nikola Peltz  teen daughter Tessa makes for the worst female lead this series has yet seen
- It's too bad whatever ideas this movie actually tries to have get almost completely forgotten about by the last third...
- The script and dialogue are often laughable
- Disappointingly lacking in Dinobot screentime
- Galvatron and the other man-made transformers end up feeling like afterthoughts by the end of the movie
- Hilariously blatant product placement, ranging from Bud Light and Beats audio to Lamborghini and... My Little Pony?!
- Still kinda racist... (though it doesn't even hold a candle in that department compared to Revenge of the Fallen)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"That's My Favourite Movie!": How to Train Your Dragon

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
Screenplay by Will Davies, Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig
Release Date: March 26, 2010

Hi everyone, and welcome to the first in a planned recurring series of columns called "That's My Favourite Movie!". As for what it's about, well, judging from the title you can probably guess: in each entry I (or a guest writer) will talk about one of their favourite movies. What that talk entails exactly can be all sorts of things, be it one's favourite scenes, characters or elements of the film, memories of your experiences with the movie (be it the first, second, fifth or fiftieth viewing), personal interpretations of the film, and maybe even interesting behind-the-scenes facts. But the main reason for this series is to express why you love the movie in question: why it sticks with you, why you find yourself returning to it time and again, what it means to you. It may get bloated, it may even get kinda messy and scattered, but it's definitely going to be honest.
With the release of the much-anticipated sequel upon us, I thought it'd be a great time to look back at the widely-beloved original film, and one of my personal favourite films: How to Train Your Dragon.

"Sorry, he's still a little bitter about losing to Toy Story 3..."

Anyone who knows me would know very well that I'm a big animation buff. There's just so much the medium is capable of, so many things it can pull off that live-action just can't do, and it always irritates and disappoints me that there's still many people out there who see the medium as merely low-rent junk made for kids. If I had to give a list of my Top 5 Favourite Animated Films of all time, it would most certainly be a difficult undertaking- I'd want to represent a variety of styles and studios, to make something that's personal yet also captures the diversity of the medium. For Pixar I would undoubtedly choose Up, an emotional and thrilling journey about age and discovery that stands as the studio's funniest and most mature film to date. Picking just one film from Disney Animation is immensely difficult, though if we're throwing childhood nostalgia into the mix then I'd probably choose the best of the 90s Disney Renaissance features, Beauty and the Beast (other contenders include Bambi, Fantasia and The Lion King). Choosing a film from Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli is an even greater challenge, as I still haven't figured out exactly which Hayao Miyazaki film is my absolute favourite (I'd say it's a three-way tossup between Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Porco Rosso). From Warner Bros. Animation comes the cult classic The Iron Giant, aka the only movie that can ever make me full-on cry- basically it's the cooler, funnier, all-around better version of E.T. (if I had to make a #1 pick, it would likely have to be this one).
And then there's the last movie on that Top 5 list: DreamWorks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon. DreamWorks is an animation studio that's gotten a lot of flack over the years, most of which isn't really deserved (emphasis on "most"- I still haven't forgotten Shark Tale, Shrek the Third or Turbo...). They're essentially to Disney and Pixar now what Warner Bros. and the Looney Tunes were to Disney back in the golden age (from the 1930s to the end of the 50s): the image of the cooler, funnier, more "hip"alternative to the squeaky-clean family image that Disney's always been clinging to (DreamWorks also shares the old Warner Bros. tradition of slipping in more "adult" jokes into many of their movies). This has gotten them a lot of commercial and audience love, but not much in terms of respect. They didn't start gaining a better image in the film community and critics' circles until 2008's Kung Fu Panda, which signalled a shift both in DreamWorks' approach to making movies and their own sense of identity as an animation studio. Rather than making mostly mass-appealing comedies (though they do still make those, albeit with generally more quality nowadays), the studio instead turned its focus to putting their own spins on various genre fare: the Kung Fu Panda films are directly influenced by classic Hong Kong martial arts cinema, Monsters Vs. Aliens pays homage to 1950s monster movies, Megamind deconstructs the formula of comic book superhero stories, and Rise of the Guardians is rooted in cultural legends and folklore.
How to Train Your Dragon changed everything for DreamWorks. Eschewing the primary focus on comedy that's common with the studio's other films (though it certainly has plenty of great humour throughout), Dragon is namely a fantasy-adventure film at heart, a soaring and altogether thrilling tale about a young teenage viking and the wounded creature he befriends. Unlike any other DreamWorks movie before it or since, this film would live or die based on its story alone, and the exemplary amount of care put into telling the tale of Hiccup and Toothless proved to many just what the studio was really capable of when they fire on all cylinders. 
Not that the story is very original- in fact, nearly all the elements there are quite familiar. We have the tried-and-true "a boy and his dog/pet/alien/robot/magical friend" narrative at the film's core, mixed with a strained father/son relationship, a message about overcoming prejudice and even some bits of budding young romance (though Dragon's Astrid is considerably more badass and better characterized than so many other female characters who become crushes/love interests for the hero). However I firmly believe that originality, while still valuable and absolutely welcome (especially in an industry littered with remakes, sequels and adaptations), isn't really a necessity. It's so difficult to be truly original in storytelling because most stories boil down to a lot of elements that, like it or not, have undoubtedly been done before in some shape or form. What matters most in storytelling is the quality and execution, not whether a story is really "original" or not. And How to Train Your Dragon is an absolutely perfect example of this: you know in the back of your mind that you've seen this story before, but it's told in such an exciting, confident, emotional and visually breathtaking way that you honestly find no reason to care. It's a film that takes a well-worn narrative and makes it feel fresh and engaging no matter how many times I see it (and believe me, I've seen this movie a LOT of times).

The first time I saw How to Train Your Dragon was in theatres, on a discount Tuesday about a week and a half after it opened. I initially intended to see it on its opening weekend, but I was strapped for cash at the time and had a good deal of assignments to take care of at the tail end of my first year in university. Initial trailers I remember looking decent but not exactly remarkable, though the final trailer that was released just a few weeks before release actually sold the movie pretty well (and ended up being a more accurate representation of the final film- you can see it here). I had heard all the fantastic reviews and buzz about it that was beginning to swell, and was interested to see what the movie was really like. I wasn't exactly a big fan of DreamWorks Animation at the time- aside from the first two Shrek movies and Kung Fu Panda, I mostly just liked and enjoyed their output without really loving it. Little did I know that How to Train Your Dragon would turn me around on that.
The second time I saw the movie was a couple weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon while I was visiting around Toronto. This time I got to see the movie in IMAX 3D. I had already been surprised and exhilarated by my first viewing, and was anxious to see it again while it was still in IMAX (Iron Man 2 would be taking those screens the following week). Needless to say this was the best I ever experienced the movie, and the viewing that effectively wowed me on a whole other level. All the scale, all the incredible flight sequences, the immersive and awe-inspiring 3D (still among the best I've ever seen), all of it felt that much bigger to the point where it practically transported you into the film's world. There was a solid-sized crowd in attendance for that showing, and it was wholly palpable just how collectively engaged and thrilled everyone was by what they were experiencing- everyone actually stood up and applauded when the end credits started. For that to happen at, say, a film festival premiere or maybe a very excited (and fanbase-heavy) advance screening is one thing- those tend to be played up as big events, ones where the audience is pumped for the movie ahead of time and applause or cheering is often expected (or at least desired). But this was just an everyday Saturday afternoon screening of a film that had already been widely playing for five weeks. This sort of thing never happens when I go to see movies.

This experience is emblematic of the effect that How to Train Your Dragon has on people, the energy, charm and sense of wonder that turns many (myself included) into obsessed and excitable fanboys/girls.  Every element of this film is executed in an exceptional and wholly engaging manner: the story, the characters, the animation, the music, the action, the humour, the pacing... the list could very well go on. The amazing 3D certainly helped too, immersing the viewer into the film's world and even enhancing the visual storytelling- seeing Hiccup's hand subtly poke out in 3D as it reaches for Toothless really makes one feel all the more like they're seeing it from the dragon's perspective. And the flying sequences? A whole other level of breathtaking.

Pictured: The kind of movie moment that goes beyond merely memorable...

The cast is filled with lovable characters, be they the feisty and competitive Astrid (America Ferrera), the nerdy stats-obsessed Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) or the eccentric peg-legged mentor and blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson), who teaches the viking teens in their dragon training. However, they mostly remain explicitly side characters, allowing the film to keep things focused squarely on its core story about Hiccup and Toothless. Hiccup is a fantastic protagonist character, a gangly kid who simply doesn't fit in, wanting to prove his worth to a father and a village who doesn't really think the same way he does. Hiccup's also got a real passion for exploring, building and invention, which unfortunately doesn't seem to have much use to battle-obsessed vikings. He's braver than he knows and has a good-natured, compassionate soul (even if it's mixed with a healthy does of the sardonic and sarcastic). Jay Baruchel's distinctive nasally voice almost seems like a terrible idea on paper (and sure, I can see why some people may find it kind of annoying), it ends up fitting the character perfectly. Any more generic teen-sounding actor would have just made the character sound like some bland typical hero archetype, which isn't what Hiccup is at all- he's a builder and a misfit, a unique voice among a society that doesn't really accommodate uniqueness. The fact that he stands out is crucial to his character, particularly in how it plays into his friendship with Toothless. Toothless is as much a distinct character in his own right, proving he's more than just some mindless beast without ever saying a word. He can shift from fearsome and intimidating to cuddly and adorable on a dime in a manner all his own, quickly becoming the kind of animal companion anyone might wish they had. He's a true reflection of Hiccup, driven by curiosity and his own particular attitude (he's definitely smarter than your average dragon). He's a soul that feels trapped and alone, one who never quite fits in with the rest of his kind, not surprising seeing how he's a very rare species who's possibly the last of his kind. As they become friends Hiccup and Toothless awaken in one another a sense of just what they're really capable of, and the amazing things they can accomplish.
The ending scene where Hiccup wakes up to find he's lost his leg is a scene that catches many by surprise, and not just because it's the sort of dark, emotionally somber note of lingering consequences that's completely unexpected from an animated film aimed at families. It also completes the arc of Hiccup and Toothless' friendship in a powerful (and almost entirely visual-driven) way. As we see Toothless' tail sweep by the frame while he helps Hiccup walk, it becomes clear how the two are forever bonded now, not only wanting but needing each other's support to feel truly whole. They're both virtuous and capable of much on their own, but only together as one can they truly soar.

While Jay Baruchel's Hiccup is the heart and soul of How to Train Your Dragon, the best performance of the movie belongs to Gerard Butler as Hiccup's chieftain father Stoick the Vast. Rather than making the character some cartoonish villain (which would have been incredibly easy to do, and absolutely would have happened in the hands of lesser filmmakers), Stoick feels like a truly human and identifiable character who is merely doing what he has been raised like so many other generations of vikings to do: kill dragons. He struggles to raise his son and deal with the trouble he often causes for him and the village, wanting to be proud of him but finding himself unable to really stand up for or connect with a son who's just different from everyone else and will never be like other vikings even as Hiccup tries to win approval. Butler gives a performance here well beyond much of his mostly one-dimensional live-action output (though that's more the fault of the kinds of thinly characterized action hero roles he's often given), commanding and stubborn yet also rife with underlying insecurities and uncertainty. This is best shown in his scenes with Gobber, his best friend and confidante, where we see how he loves and cares for his son despite his frustrations, but he just feels lost as what to do with him. When Stoick does the whole "you're not my son" moment, it's different from all the over-exaggerated versions of this same scene that have been done before because we know it absolutely kills him inside to say such a thing. The look he gives after slamming that door isn't one of blind, prejudice-driven anger, but one of genuine heartbreak. It's written all over his face what the one thought in his head is right now: "what have I done?"

If DreamWorks has proven their mettle in competition with Disney/Pixar in any area, it's undoubtedly in the animation itself. They've made several fantastic-looking movies since they started out 20 years ago, but How to Train Your Dragon set a whole new gold standard, one which has kept encouraging their animators to up their game ever since. The level of detail is still astounding, whether it be all the hairs of Stoick's beard, Toothless' many black scales, or the etchings in Hiccup's notebooks. The true masterstroke however was hiring legendary cinematographer (and regular Coen Brothers collaborator) Roger Deakins to act as a visual consultant for the film. Having previously consulted on Pixar's Wall-E, Deakins' contribution here lends the film something that many animated films lack: a cinematic sense of lighting. It's easy to make an animated film bright and colourful and oh-so-marketably cartoony. But the use of lighting can make a huge difference in how immersive and eye-catching your movie can be, giving animation more of a live-action look and feel (thus lending an extra little "wow" factor when the story centres around fantastical creatures like dragons). It particularly adds to the film's environments, to the point where they look almost photorealistic: the shimmering waters of the ocean, the mossy pit where Hiccup and Toothless get to know one another, the tall cliffs protruding around the island of Berk during the first test flight. Even in smaller moments the lighting adds immensely, whether we see sunlight on Astrid as she sharpens her axe or the light of a lantern as Hiccup flips through the Book of Dragons. Since then the studio has regularly hired live-action cinematographers as visual consultants for their projects, and Deakins has consulted on several other DreamWorks films, such as Rise of the Guardians, The Croods, and of course How to Train Your Dragon 2.
If Deakins' and the animators provide the dazzle and awe, then composer John Powell offers the emotional sweep of the film with one of the best orchestral scores in recent memory. Imbued with a heavy Celtic influence and using instruments like the fiddle, bagpipes, penny whistle and harpsichord, the music created for Dragon perfectly reflects the emotion and action of every scene. Just listening to the score is like watching the film in my head, captivating even without the visuals to accompany it. Whereas most film scores have a bunch of filler to keep you busy while you wait for the few memorable good tracks, Powell's score for Dragon has no such filler: it's the kind of soundtrack you listen to from beginning to end. Not that there aren't a few particular standouts, with the pick for the best often being a three-horse (or dragon) race between "Forbidden Friendship", "Test Flight" and "Romantic Flight". The score was widely praised by many upon the film's release (it even got an Oscar nomination!), and remains a beautiful, captivating listen.

For what feels like the longest time I've had trouble really figuring out and articulating just what it is about How to Train Your Dragon that continues to stick with me, what made me fall so unabashedly in love with this movie to a degree that not many others have reached. I know there are objectively better movies out there- heck, there were even a few objectively better movies back in 2010 when Dragon came out (I still hold firm that the best film that year was The Social Network, and I definitely hold firm that it should have won the Best Picture Oscar instead of The King's Speech). But something always stood out about Dragon, and I think I know what it is now: it makes you feel. Every emotion the characters feel, every sight and expression of awe or wonder feels honest, palpable and wholly genuine.  It's the very thing that film can be best at, and Dragon doesn't pad or waste a second of running time in its drive to unfold a captivating and immensely heartfelt narrative. On the darkest days, when all that seems to be left of the medium is mindless, shallow or soulless rehashes and product, How to Train Your Dragon is the kind of film that reminds me of my passion and devotion to an amazing, powerful and wondrous art form.
It makes me say "this is why I love the movies".

Thanks for reading through all my gushing and rambling, everyone! Have a great Canada Day/Independence Day holiday!

Friday, June 20, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Review: Bigger, Bolder, and (Possibly) Even Better

By Andrew Braid

Written and Directed by Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Kit Harington, Djimon Hounsou, Jonah Hill, Christopher-Mintz Plasse, Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller
Release Date: June 13, 2014
Presented in 2D and 3D

I've made it absolutely no secret to anyone that I loved How to Train Your Dragon. Hell, "loved" definitely doesn't feel like a strong enough word- think "adored" or "obsessed with" (that's two words, but still). Despite its simple, well-worn "boy and his _____" tale (in this case about a dragon rather than a dog, alien or giant robot), How to Train Your Dragon dazzled audiences with its spectacular 3D action and captured their hearts with its memorable characters and touching emotional story. This was more than just some kidpic timekiller to keep the young 'uns at bay for an hour and a half- it was genuine movie magic. 
So unlike the original film that no one expected much of anything from at the time when it was released four years ago, How to Train Your Dragon 2 faces the burden of having to clear a much higher bar with audiences. I more than anyone wouldn't let just any pretty-looking follow-up get by with a free pass. The first film was truly something special, and a real sequel would have to follow suit, especially when it's planned to be the middle chapter of a trilogy (the third film is set to open in June 2016). Thankfully How to Train Your Dragon 2 is anything but a play-it-safe rehash or a failed attempt to recapture the glory of its predecessor. 
Rest easy, fans of the first film: lightning can be caught in a bottle twice, and Dragon 2 proves it.

Hiccup and Toothless encounter the fearsome Dragon Rider...

Set five years after the events of the first film, How to Train Your Dragon 2 finds the island village of Berk as it's become a paradise of harmony between vikings and dragons. But while his friends race dragons in quidditch-esque games back home (substituting sheep for quaffles), 20-year old Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is flying through the clouds with his dragon (and best friend) Toothless, exploring and mapping out uncharted lands. While his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) wants him to assume his role as chief of the village, Hiccup feels uncertain and unwilling to take on such responsibilities despite his insistence or the encouragement of his warrior girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera). Soon though Hiccup finds himself ambushed by a mysterious dragon rider who turns out to be Hiccup's long-thought dead mother Valka (Cate Blanchett). Having lived among the dragons in a hidden sanctuary, Valka makes up for a lot of lost time with her grown-up son, as it turns out that Hiccup shares a lot more in common with her than his stubborn-yet loving viking father. Big trouble brews however in the approach of a massive army led by dragon-conquering warlord Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), whose belief in subjugation over harmony with dragons threatens the peace that Hiccup has worked so hard for.

Turns out Hiccup's family has a lot of catching up to do...

From the moment we're aware that 5 years have passed and our cast of viking teens is all grown up, How to Train Your Dragon 2 lets us know that this isn't your ordinary "just another fun adventure" kind of sequel. While it carries over and even enhances many of the first film's charms, it firmly establishes that this is a true follow-up and continuation of the original's story, plotting a very different course in the process. In contrast to the first film's tale about overcoming prejudice and the bond between a boy and his pet friend, the second film is namely a coming-of-age tale for Hiccup, as he makes those precarious final steps towards full-fledged adulthood. Revelations unfold through Hiccup's reunion with the mother he never really knew, as he comes to realize just how much his parents have influenced him and who he is. He sees what he's inherited from both his father and his mother, yet strives to show what makes him unique- namely his sense of optimism and conviction that people are capable of change. This proves a double-edged sword for intelligent young Hiccup: on one hand he has a valid point that he has and can change people's minds (like he did with his father and the rest of Berk in the first film). On the other hand though it's a conviction that unfortunately proves somewhat naive- men like Drago Bludvist will simply refuse to change their minds no matter how well Hiccup debates with them, and as a result sometimes war and conflict are inevitable. Even more so than the first film actions can have serious consequences, and by the end of the film these consequences shape Hiccup into what kind of man he'll be.
Writer/Director Dean DeBlois (now flying solo after co-writing/directing the first film with Chris Sanders) has stated in several interviews that his primary inspiration for Dragon 2 was The Empire Strikes Back, and the influence is very much evident: this is a decidedly darker, deeper film than the original, one that takes its family-friendly PG rating about as far it can go. Gone is the simpler, more familiar and comfortably predictable narrative of the first film; here we get the rare case of an animated feature where one honestly isn't sure how everything is going to end up. The action is more intense, the stakes are higher, and Hiccup suffers much more than a lost leg this time around (including one plot turn in particular that's destined to be a tearjerker on par with The Lion King and The Iron Giant). However, don't be fooled into thinking that the series has lost its sense of humour- in fact, Dragon 2 is actually even funnier than the first film (much like Empire had sharper laughs than the original Star Wars). Whether it's playful dragon interactions or brow-raised side remarks from Gobber (Craig Ferguson), the film is filled with charming laughs throughout (with one running joke in particular that's just too good to spoil- all I'll say is it left the whole theatre in stitches). Fortunately the film keeps a precise balance in its tone, so its pieces of humour don't ever risk overshadowing or undermining any crucial emotional beats. The result is a film with perfectly-tuned pacing that's neither slow nor hurried, one that feels supremely assured and confident that it won't take a wrong step.

The returning cast of characters are both much very much like we remember them and significantly different, and the actors voicing them follow suit with their performances. Jay Baruchel's Hiccup is still his lovable good-natured self, but he also shows signs of the maturity preparing to break out as he struggles with finding his own sense of identity. His relationship with Astrid is loving and easygoing, clearly at the point where they know each other's tricks and mannerisms all too well (an early scene where he and Astrid recreate a talk with Hiccup's father proves particularly clever and comical). Local jock Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and nerdy Fishlegs (Christopher-Mintz Plasse) are much the same, but their hormonal urges have led them both to vie for the affections of fellow dragon rider Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), much to her disdain. Hiccup's father Stoick, once sworn enemy of dragons everywhere, has grown to love these amazing creatures, and couldn't be more proud of his son (that doesn't mean he's much better at listening to him though). Only peg-legged mentor Gobber seems to be about the same as always (though it amusingly turns out there's a few details we didn't know about him before). 
And then there's Hiccup's mother Valka, who proves a great character in her own right. A Diane Fossey for dragons, she knows all of their secrets, and has much she can pass down to her son. Blanchett's voice is a perfect fit, lending the character equal parts proud wisdom, quirky isolation and stern defiance. Two of the film's biggest standout scenes involve the reunion of Valka and Stoick, heartwarmingly beautiful yet with an edge of more mature adult romance not often seen in animated family fare (this also once again proves to be Gerard Butler's best work, proving what he can do when he gets to play more than just some thinly-characterized action hero). Also joining the cast this time around is Game of Thrones' Kit Harington as suave dragon trapper Eret ("Son of Eret") and Djimon Hounsou as the villainous Drago, a twisted and menacing dark side reflection of Hiccup's peaceful idealism. 

The ice-breathing Bewilderbeast was always great at playing "peekaboo"...

DreamWorks Animation has outdone itself with Dragon 2, bringing Hiccup's new story to life through arrestingly-beautiful animation that even puts the stunning first Dragon film to shame. Everything is immensely detailed: every environment brimming with atmosphere, every character distinctly realized and astoundingly expressive in ways both subtle and exaggerated. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins' returns as a visual consultant for the film, and his influence is immediately felt in the wondrously cinematic look of the film, whether it's the way sunlight glistens on a character's hair or as dragon fire sets the stage in an ominous cave. Also returning after great success with the first film is composer John Powell, whose orchestral score once again proves an amazing listen even when separated from the movie it so perfectly synchs with. Whether the scene is sweeping, romantic, tragic or lighthearted, Powell captures every emotion note for note with deft skill. 
The first film was also famous for its exhilarating use of 3D, and Dragon 2 follows suit with aplomb. More "pop-out" moments are fewer and more subdued this time around, in favour of creating a sense of immense depth in the film's wondrous skies and locales. Every scene feels like you're being sucked into the fantastic animated world in front of you, and every trip on the back of a dragon gives a sensation of soaring right along with the characters. It honestly goes without saying that if you can see the film in 3D, then you should absolutely make it a priority to do so.

The flying sequences that made the first one such a huge hit are back with a vengeance here, and the 3D makes them a must-see experience.

There's not many other ways I can put it: How to Train Your Dragon 2 is absolutely spectacular. Not only is it among the most elite examples of how to make a truly great sequel, but it proves to be a thrilling and hugely emotional adventure movie in its own right. It's equal parts awe-inspiring, hilarious and deeply resonant, and is an undisputed frontrunner for best movie of the summer (and who knows, possibly the whole year). It's the kind of film that doesn't just demand the big screen experience, but actually deserves it too (the Transformers movies can demand the big screen experience all they want, that doesn't mean they actually deserve it on any non-visual level). Just like its adored predecessor, it's the kind of film that can be loved and enjoyed by anyone, young or old, bound to dazzle any viewer looking to see what true movie magic looks like.
Then again, there's soooo many other great movies you can take the kids to this summer instead...

Skeptical Toothless is skeptical about that last line...

Final Score: 10 / 10

+ A darker, richer and bolder story that expands on the first film in wonderful, emotional, and even surprising ways
+ The action and flying sequences seriously step up their game while retaining their thrilling sense of adventure and wonder
+ Even funnier than the first film, yet balanced out expertly so the humour never undermines or overshadows the dramatic story beats
+ The astoundingly beautiful animation is matched by spectacular 3D, demanding to be seen on the big screen
+ Fantastic performances from the entire voice cast, with Baruchel, Blanchett and Butler proving particular standouts
+ John Powell's score is just as amazing as his Oscar-nominated work on the first film

- We'll have to wait 2 more years for the third movie...

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West Review: The Only Thing Dying Here is Comedy

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Seth MacFarlane
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Sarah Silverman, Giovanni Ribisi, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, Amanda Seyfried
Release Date: May 30, 2014

Before you jump to any wrong conclusions, let me get this out of the way: I like Seth MacFarlane. I honestly do. I grew up loving Family Guy, and American Dad gradually proved over time to be even better. And while it probably won't stand the test of time I also really liked Ted, MacFarlane's debut in the world of feature-length filmmaking. It's also very evident from interviews and pieces with the guy that MacFarlane is also a very smart, business-savvy guy, whose huge success came out of his canny ability to tap into what could broadly appeal to mass audiences while including his own satirical or absurdist sensibilities. 
But it's also become apparent that MacFarlane also has somewhat of an ego, and when that ego decides to make passion projects, they end up being less for the enjoyment of audiences and more for himself because he just kinda felt like doing that this week (for a good example, look no further than the infamously interminable Family Guy Presents: Seth & Alex's Almost Live Comedy Show- yeah, wasn't expecting me to bring that up, were you?*). That's unfortunately what we end up having here with his second feature film, A Million Ways to Die in the West, a homage to westerns that's also a comedy, apparently. You'd be hard-pressed to tell that though, considering how much dead silence was in the theatre when I saw it.

Wow Seth, you really weren't prepared to read the reviews for this, were you? 

Seth MacFarlane (his character's name is Albert, but let's not mince words here- calling him a "character" is being generous) is a smarter-than-thou yet cowardly sheep farmer who gets dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) for local moustache enthusiast Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, whose talents couldn't possibly be more wasted here unless the movie had the word "Smurfs" in the title). Enter Anna (Charlize Theron), a beautiful gunslinger laying low in Albert's hometown who agrees to teach Albert how to shoot and stand up for himself so he can challenge Foy to pistols at dawn and win back Louise. But feelings begin to form between these new friends, and Albert begins doubting whether Louise is really right for him in the first pl-
...You know what, do you actually care? Because I sure as hell didn't. The film focuses way too much of its bloated 116 minute running time on this stupid, cliched love triangle that the film plays mostly straight and genuinely expects us to get invested in. While Theron gives it her all and even manages to find occasional sparks of chemistry with MacFarlane, it doesn't change how rote and tiresomely predictable the whole thing is. In fact, Theron, like much of the talented supporting cast (including Sarah Silverman, Giovanni Ribisi and Liam Neeson), ends up getting sidelined at many an opportunity for Seth MacFarlane to take centre stage and mug at the camera for laughs that almost never occur. Everyone feels like they were mostly just hired to stand there and watch MacFarlane riff on his soapbox, a soapbox which his other work at least concealed under Macfarlane playing some kind of wacky, self-deprecating or bizarre character (Brian and Stewie on Family Guy, Ted, etc.). Here it never feels like he's playing any kind of actual character, which makes all his incessant mugging that much harder to tolerate. 

Look at this face and honestly tell me you don't want to punch it right now. 

That the film plays so much of itself straight simply doesn't end up fitting with MacFarlane's comedic sensibilities, and in the process the variety of actual humour on display becomes severely limited. Ted succeeded because it mixed genuine heart (and MacFarlane playing a real character) with a variety of absurd gags, cutaways and bizarre pop culture references. Sure they had some gross-out gags and sex jokes too, but they didn't take over the whole movie. By contrast, A Million Ways to Die in the West boils down to about 3 kinds of jokes repeated with slight variations ad nauseum:

Joke #1: "Gee, living in the Old West sure does suck!"
Joke #2: "Gee, the Old West sure was racist/sexist/etc.!"
Joke #3: "Look, piss/poop gags!"

Mix in some cheap sex jokes and the aforementioned crappy love triangle, then tie it in a bow with a surprising level of technical competence and production value (that's completely wasted on a film this tiringly unfunny) and you've basically got the whole movie right there. 
I really don't think there's much else to say here, honestly. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the only question that's important when talking about a comedy is this: "Is it funny?" And in the case of A Million Ways my answer is a resounding no, regardless of whether you're a Family Guy fan or not.

Pictured: Amanda Seyfried, in a rare moment of genuinely contemplating her life choices.

I feel like I've gotten relatively lucky with movies so far this year. Sure, there's been many movies that are just average (About Last Night, Million Dollar Arm), or mixed bags (the Robocop remake, Maleficent- more on that in a bit), and even ones that are downright mediocre (Rio 2, Divergent). But most of these movies still have some stuff that's interesting or salvageable enough to make them watchable, or at the very least generally tolerable. But A Million Ways to Die in the West has none of these things. It's a failed vanity project through and through from a man we know is capable of better, an uninspired and awkward stab at comedy that only accomplishes wasting 2 hours of your life. It honestly makes me look back a lot more fondly on MacFarlane's Oscar hosting gig a few years back- at least there he told more than 3 kinds of jokes.

"I'll just hide here until Ted 2 comes out..."

Final Score: 3 / 10

+ Well made on a technical level (direction, production design, music, etc.)
+ Two of the cameos are amusing
+ A few laughs do occasionally eke out...

- ...But it's not enough to make up for the dozens of other bits that fall completely flat
- The film plays too much of itself straight, critically lacking in MacFarlane's trademark absurdity
- A great supporting cast is mostly wasted in order to let MacFarlane take centre stage
- MacFarlane simply cannot carry a film entirely on his own
- Trite, predictable love triangle plot
- Needlessly drags on for almost 2 hours

*: Especially considering that I was one of the 12 people that actually watched it