The American West is a setting continually romanticised on the big and small screens. From the gritty magnetism of Deadwood to the kooky thrills of Cowboys and Aliens, Hollywood makes gun-toting outlaws, violent bar fights, and the Great Plains seem extraordinary. However, the real story of the Old West is a disgusting and questionable one. Pointing out the obvious, mega-successful entrepreneur Seth MacFarlane’s latest effort, A Million Ways to Die in the West, exhaustively and turgidly overlays the point I just made.
Seth MacFarlane & Charlize Theron.
Despite his new feature’s quality, MacFarlane, known for animated TV series’ like Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show, is one of pop-culture’s most talented and intriguing figures. Releasing jazz albums and hosting the Oscars ceremony in his spare time, the 30-something celebrity appears to be everywhere at once. Bringing back Cosmos and Star Trek, his likes and dislikes have been plastered across every adult’s frame of mind. Obviously, MacFarlane can create inventive and pacy creations. Here, his ambitious and eye-catching reach drastically exceeds his grasp. The plot, such as it is, proves exactly why Family Guy never relies on plot, character arcs, or thematic relevance. Stuck in the Old West, down-on-his-luck sheepherder Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is forced to talk his way out of a gunfight. Looked down upon by the townspeople, his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) is embarrassed by him. Dumped soon afterward the standoff, Stark throws it in and reveals his hatred of the Great Plains. Meanwhile, somewhere else in the west, vicious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) forces his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) to head toward Stark’s hometown.
Neil Patrick Harris & Amanda Seyfried.
From there, the narrative relies on the most basic of western and romantic comedy clichés. MacFarlane, following up his first live-action feature Ted, has made yet another conventional and unexciting gross-out comedy. Released after mega-hit Bad Neighbours, it’s hard not to compare the two. Sadly, unlike that farce, AMWTDITW takes its conventional premise and never ventures into unfamiliar or even dangerous territory. At this point, MacFarlane, with this and failed sitcom Dads, is only holding himself back. The movie, stretched to an unwarranted 2-hour length, kicks off each scene with lugubrious set-ups and ends them with banal punch lines. The first third, outlining the somewhat intriguing premise whilst introducing vital tidbits, rests solely on its actors’ immense talents. Throughout the first half-hour, the audience is left to wait patiently for the story to begin. Sadly, the story never rises above tedious revelations and inappropriate jokes. After Anna comes to town, she and Stark hit it off over the course of a week. Admittedly, this plot-line is significantly more interesting than the rest. Louise’s new boyfriend Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Stark’s friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his girlfriend Ruth are fitted into useless and unfunny sub-plots. With its set-piece-fuelled structure and satire-free agenda, AMWTDITW gets off to a sluggish start. Unfortunately, the movie never speeds up. Lacking flavour and consistency, the twists and turns are visible from a mile away. Speaking of open plains, crickets and tumbleweeds are the only two things that react to AMWTDITW’s absurd and childish sense of humour. Before you can say “pistols at dawn”, the movie’s dick, poop, weed, and fart jokes ware themselves to the bone. Starting and/or ending certain scenes, these mishandled gags only elongate this already tiresome effort.
“I’m not the hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt; that’s who I am.” (Albert (Seth MacFarlane), A Million Ways to Die in the West).
Co-written by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild, this posse throws only one six-shooter of jokes into this banal effort. Aiming to conquer Mel Brooks’ style, this Blazing Saddles wannabe misses the mark well before its climactic finale. Writing itself off as ‘yet another’ dull gross-out comedy, AMWTDITW never forms a unique and satisfying identity. Pushing its racial and sexual humour to breaking point, Django Unchained’s use of the ‘N-word’ seems subtle and dexterous by comparison. Obviously, MacFarlane is the star of this show. Directing, producing, co-writing, and starring in his sophomore effort, all eyes and ears are aimed at him. Unlike Ben Affleck and George Clooney, MacFarlane cannot handle everything at once. Repeating certain jokes and obtaining almost all of the clever lines, his overwhelming influence casts a miserable shadow over the material. Surprisingly, his filmmaking technique has drastically improved. The cinematography, score, production design, and action sequences come together charmingly. Featuring charismatic performers and star-powered cameos, MacFarlane’s latest effort comes close to becoming one of Ricky Gervais’ failures (The Invention of Lying). Fortunately, his actor-direction delivers several light-hearted moments. Despite their underwhelming roles, MacFarlane and Theron develop a significant rapport. Their romance, breezed through via montages, is solidified by their innate charisma and quick-wittedness. Meanwhile, Neeson lends significantly more energy to everything else he’s done this year than to this screwball farce.
Strolling through its period setting, AMWTDITW lacks charm, subtly, and nuance compared to similar works. MacFarlane is stuck in the ultimate ‘emperor has no clothes’ situation here. With his piercing agenda, blinding hubris, and confronting sense of humour tripping him at every turn, MacFarlane is now shooting blanks when he should be firing on all cylinders. Maybe, he should stick to voiceover work.
Verdict: A disappointing and vacuous sophomore effort.
Writers: Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, Hossein Amini (screenplay), The Brothers Grimm (fairytale)
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Sam Claflin
Release date: June 1st, 2012
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Running time: 127 minutes
Best part: The breath-taking visuals.
Worst part: The monotonous pace.
Following the recent forgettable slapstick farce Mirror Mirror comes yet another interpretation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White. Snow White and the Huntsman takes a large step in the other direction; creating a dark, twisted interpretation of a story normally considered to be a fun, family friendly adventure. Out of the many recent film and TV adaptations of popular fairy tales, this adaptation of Snow White may be the fairest of them all.
This film takes a sharp turn away from the classic 1937 animated adaptation Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, emphasising many fantasy elements relevant in popular film culture. With the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) taking over the kingdom and locking the murdered king’s daughter Snow White (Kristen Stewart) away forever, the king’s once glorious and beautiful reign has crumbled. Her rule forces Snow to escape her captivity and proceed into the dark forest. With a strong desire for Snow’s still-beating heart, she enlists the help of the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to bring her back. The Huntsman’s path however intertwines with Snows as their desire for the freedom of their kingdom leads Snow to be the fated saviour of the land and take her rightful place on the throne.
Chris Hemsworth & the dwarves.
This interpretation perfectly suits the name of ‘Grimm’. With this familiar story recreated in the serious tone of the revered original material, Snow White and the Huntsman is a derivative yet energetic reinvention of the legend. The direction by first time feature director Rupert Sanders (previously known for creating breathtaking advertisements for the Halo 3:ODST video game) creates a fairytale land that is sickly creepy and gorgeous simultaneously. Despite the uneven pacing throughout, Sander’s film may be seen as his canvas; a blank slate in which his keen eye for visuals and influential works are composed in a multi layered and involving fashion. His action set pieces and cinematography contain elements of blockbuster hits such as Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, the similarly envisioned Robin Hood and The Lord of the Rings trilogy with the mixture of handheld camera work, fluid tracking shots and soft lighting. While the affecting landscapes and peculiar creature designs are reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth. Several shots in particular, involving fairies calling Snow White, are filmed in close up on their small faces to create the emotional balance needed for the disgustingly dark story told.The weaker aspects of this interpretation however involve the screenplay. Involving three different screen writers, Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and Hossein Amini (Drive), the screenplay is of lesser quality than the visual style due to the many popular genre elements fit in all at once.
“Lips red as blood, hair black as night, bring me your heart, my dear, dear Snow White.” (Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), Snow White and the Huntsman).
Despite the many charming dialogue moments and rousing speeches, including one that will leave any sceptic of Stewart thinking twice, flashback sequences and underused characters dilute from the familiar story. Unfortunately, the development of Snow White from victim to determined hero is largely implied. She never convinces the viewer that she is the fabled, strong female lead character the original fairytale portrays her to be. Her underwritten character, though convincingly performed by Stewart, incessantly shifts focus between the more involving characters around her. The dwarfs, played by a plethora of experienced character actors such as Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Bob Hoskins and Ian McShane, are also underwritten. Despite engaging performances from this reliable cast, they simply provide moments of comic relief for this otherwise sombre interpretation. The performances from all three leads are enrapturing. Coming off of portraying the detestable female lead character Bella in The Twilight Saga, Stewart can hopefully shrug off that stigma after her dynamic performances in Adventureland, Welcome to the Rileys and now Snow White and the Huntsman. Hemsworth continues his run of charismatic performances after Thor and The Avengers with a thick Scottish accent and axe in hand. While Theron, continuing on from her recent turn as the hardened female antagonist in Prometheus, brings an ice cold demeanour to the sadistic Queen Ravenna.
Though hindered gravely by its sluggish pacing and derivative direction, Snow White and the Huntsman appeals to fairytale buffs and blockbuster nuts equally. Thanks to the charming performances and invigorating visuals, this gritty reboot will work wonders over the holidays.
Verdict: Thankfully, fairer than many of the poisoned apples in modern cinematic fantasy.
Stars: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba
Release date: June 8th, 2012
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Countries: USA, UK
Running time: 124 minutes
Best part: Michael Fassbender.
Worst part: The unanswered questions.
Whether Prometheus is seen as a prequel or brand new adventure in the Alien universe, one thing is certain; no one does sci-fi quite like Ridley Scott. Scott, the director of memorable, smart blockbusters such as Blade Runner and Gladiator, not only excels in different genres but creates fascinating cinematic moments that will live with you forever. As the director of the 1979 classic sci-fi horror flick Alien, Scott’s highly-anticipated return to this universe is a philosophical and shocking account of the search for our beginnings.
We follow many characters, each with their own views of humanity and the mission itself. In 2089, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find a star map etched into different archaeological remnants from vastly different civilisations. This constellation, highlighted by the appearance of a large figure pointing to the sky, may in fact symbolise the dawn of man. Landing on the distant moon LV- 223 three years later, the accuracy of this theory is what everyone on the spaceship ’Prometheus’ is searching for. Shaw and Holloway must encounter hostile sceptics including inquisitive human-like android David (Michael Fassbender) and hardened Weylan Corporation executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). There discoveries will however change the course of human history (for greater and worse) while creating scarily affecting problems for the ship’s largely scientist based crew.
Ridley Scott knows how to deliver truly smart sci-fi. While not as groundbreaking as Blade Runner or Alien, Prometheus carefully and uniquely asks the big questions no one has found the answers to. The screenplay by Damon Lindelof (co-creator/writer of Lost) and Jon Spaihts, based sparingly on Stephen Hawking’s recent theories on the discovery of hostile beings in the universe, uses important questions, suggesting different yet believable theories based on our evolution and of creationism, as the basis for its many character arcs. A believable relationship between this story of our beginnings and murky horror flick reminiscent of the Alien universe is executed in Prometheus, creating a truly dangerous sci-fi adventure, subtly using both references from the Alien films and the seeds to create its own universe. Many of the supporting characters feel two dimensional, developing largely predictable problems for the main characters. The performances, however, as usual with Scott, are all top notch. Rapace once again creates a strong female protagonist; this time noticeably similar to Ripley in the original Alien films. Theron and Idris Elba as the ship’s captain are charismatic in their smaller roles. While the stand out is Fassbender as the peaceful looking android with creepily ulterior motives. Fassbender creates the most fascinating character in modern sci-fi, depicting a strange, multi-functioning automaton with a curiosity for the existential questions his human ‘superiors’ ask. Several small touches, including his accurate impersonation of Peter O. Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, display a fascinating and in-depth depiction of a soulless being in search of a human connection.
“Big things have small beginnings.” (David (Michael Fassbender), Prometheus).
Charlize Theron & Idris Elba.
Despite this search for answers leading to a frustratingly ambiguous final third, each character’s motivations and theories delicately and assuredly create the themes of the film, culminating in a search for the reality of existence through hostile and tension filled terms. The film, for the most part, is emotionally powerful. You feel excited when Prometheus lands, while ultimately feeling a strange void in the pit of your stomach with knowing what comes next. Not really surprising to one who knows the brutal story behind the name ‘Prometheus’. Scott isn’t afraid to push the MA15+ rating. The beautiful yet bloody practical effects and creature designs match the violent intensity of the Alien series. The shockingly realistic and blood curdling penetrative deaths are part of the emotional core that will be longingly set in your mind. One scene in particular will have you questioning the practicality of Caesarean sections. The film’s visual appeal is also stunning. The holographic and touch screen applications of their operations and discoveries create several dimensions, using different pix-elated and CG creations to develop an appealing contrast with H. R. Giger’s influential and practical alien spaceship designs.
Does Prometheus live up to expectations? Yes and no. Yes, Scott’s streamlined direction delivers several wondrous set-pieces and visual flourishes. No, the big questions it so-eagerly asks in the first third aren’t given answers. Overall, we might have to show up next time for one ‘final’ adventure.
Verdict: An ambitious and glorious sci-fi actioner.