Sunday, June 8, 2014
Seth MacFarlane’s half-baked horse opera “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (** OUT OF ****) qualifies as a saddle-sore saga. This lowest common denominator sagebrush satire boasts low-brow bowel humor, highly offensive language, and gory death scenes. Despite all these unsavory elements, this western spoof emerges as fair at best and routine at worst. Sporadically funny jokes and gags cannot conceal the conventions and clichés. The first problem is the trite Alex Sulkin, Wellesley Wild, and Seth MacFarlane screenplay. Recently, I watched an Eddie Albert comedy “The Dude Goes West” (1947) that covered similar ground with greater success. MacFarlane and his co-writers rant about the deplorable conditions governing life on the frontier in the 19th century American west. The hero and the heroine hate the west. This revulsion of all things western neither distinguishes MacFarlane’s movie nor makes its humor any funnier. The only place where “A Million Ways to Die” breaks ground is with its raunchy R-rated jokes. Some of the jokes hit, but most miss. Some jokes are so vile they might gag the guys in the “Jackass” movies. Indeed, MacFarlane gets away with a lot in this lame oater, especially during the opening “Gunsmoke” showdown. The good jokes are really good. One of the best turns out to be badly told but this serves to accentuate the humor. The second problem is most of the dialogue sounds like stand-up, comic routines. Some standup comedy routines are better than others. The best gag concerns Old West photography. The running joke is nobody smiles in a photograph in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the grinning photo attained the status as an urban legend. Those who aren’t appalled by MacFarlane’s infantile as well as scatological sense of humor will no doubt want to roll in it like a dog in its own feces. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” struggles to emulate “Blazing Saddles,” deliver dialogue like “Deadwood,” and show off like “Faces of Death.”
The setting of “A Million Ways to Die” is the town of Old Stump in the Arizona Territory in the year 1882. Our pusillanimous sheep farming protagonist, Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane of “Ted”), sinks into a state of depression after his schoolmarm girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), dumps him for a snotty lothario, Foy (Neal Patrick Harris of “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”), who owns a mustache shop. No, nice-guy Albert doesn’t sport a mustache. Louise left Albert because she classified him as too cowardly. During the opening Main Street showdown, Albert drops his six-gun in the dust rather than shoot it out with another gunman. Later, Albert challenges Foy to a duel. Meantime, a mysterious woman, Anna (Charlize Theron of “Monster”), shows Albert how to handle a hog-leg. Anna, as it turns out, is the wife of notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson of “Taken”) who eventually decides to shoot Albert for flirting with his wife. Basically, boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl back, but takes up with a different girl describes the storyline. An imbecilic subplot concerns the romance between a hard-working saloon prostitute, Ruth (Sarah Silverman of “Evolution”) and a timid male virgin shoemaker (Giovanni Ribisi of “The Mod Squad”) who has agreed not to have intercourse with her until their wedding night. Albert and his friends emerge as likeable, sympathetic characters, while Foy, Clinch, and his henchmen are as repulsive as rattlers.
Although best known as the creator of the respective animated series “American Dad” and “Family Guy,” not to mention his previous blockbuster comedy “Ted” with Mark Wahlberg, MacFarlane must have been gambling that he could resurrect a moribund franchise with his impertinent humor. Westerns have not performed well at the box office since the early 1990s, and even then the genre was riding on borrowed time. After John Wayne died and Clint Eastwood got too old plains, westerns have never regained their former grandeur. Disney’s “Lone Ranger” tanked last summer, and only AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” on television has survived with any success. The Jeff Bridges “True Grit” remake and Quentin Tarantino’s slave saga “Django” are the sole examples of successes. Nothing about MacFarlane’s approach to the genre justifies its use. He looks out of place himself with his hopelessly clean-scrubbed, Shoney’s Big Boy looks. Aside from his profanity, MacFarlane plays the same tenderfoot that Bob Hope, Eddie Albert, Gary Cooper, Don Knotts, or Tim Conway have done in earlier movies and television shows. Neil Patrick Harris usually steals the show no matter what the material, but he makes only a minor impression with his Snidely Whiplash villain. Unfortunate Amanda Seyfried has little more to do than bulge her beautiful eyes and swish an umbrella. Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson wander through their roles. Colorful cameos by the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Jamie Foxx, and Bill Maher prove more stimulating. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” could have been a million times better.
Those immersed in all things Marvel, particularly Twentieth Century Fox’s “X-Men” film franchise, should scrutinize “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (**** OUT OF ****) several times for its larger-than-life spectacle, global adventure, and sterling performances. Director Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two “X-Men” outings and scenarist Simon Kinberg of “X-Men: The Last Stand” bring the popular Marvel franchise full circle. This time around fans can savor the best of both worlds, with the original cast in the futuristic scenes while their youthful counterparts flesh out the flashbacks. Furthermore, Singer and company spring some audacious surprises and provide a whole new future for the franchise. Clearly, Singer and Kinberg hold “The Matrix” and “Terminator 2” in high regard because they take cues from these seminal science fiction films. Indeed, as this elaborate time travel tale takes place, some characters suffer from shortage of screen presence for a variety of reasons not altogether clear. Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Fame Janssen, Kelsey Grammer, Anna Paquin, and James Marsden don’t garner the amount of screen time reserved for Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence. Nevertheless, they make an indelible impression in spite of their respective brevity. Of course, if you missed either “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006) or “X-Men: First Class” (2011), you may have trouble keeping up with both the plot and characters. Singer and company splice in scenes from earlier “X-Men” epics to refresh our memories when allusions are made to certain characters that do not appear in “Days of Future Past.” Although it lacks a villain as deliciously despicable as Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, this striking ensemble superhero saga eclipses “X-Men: First Class” in virtually every respect.
Comic book fans should prepare themselves for some major surprises. Singer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” shares selectively with issues 141 and 142 of Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s “The Uncanny X-Men.” The “Days of Future Past” comic book appeared in print January thru February of 1981. Originally, Kitty Pryde plunged back in time in the graphic novel rather than the Wolverine in the film. Moreover, some villains in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants are conspicuously AWOL, notably The Blob and Avalanche. Meantime, the assassination plot remains intact, but the individual marked for death differs. The assassin’s target is no longer a politician, but an eminent research scientist who wants to eradicate all traces of mutants. The Sentinels show up and pose a threat not only to the mutants, but also mankind, too. Despite these changes, Singer and Kinberg have created an exciting, imaginative, but acerbic opus. The “X-Men” movies have always been a notch above the other Marvel film properties. We learn that President Kennedy was a mutant and Magneto tried to save his life. Singer and company depict President Nixon as a buffoon and excoriate the government for the debacle in South Vietnam. For those who enjoy “X-Men” movies simply as an avenue of escapism, the political commentary may be as extraneous as it is pretentious. Meantime, we have a movie that isn’t strictly devoted to urban renewal. The Marvel film franchises at Walt Disney emerge as hollow-minded crowd-pleasers by comparison. They shun any form of political commentary. Singer takes “X-Men” seriously, with a smirk every now and then to keep us poised on our collective toes. Interestingly enough, despite its fidelity to “X-Men: First Class,” “Days of Future Past” unfolds after a gap in time has occurred since its predecessor. When we last saw Magneto, he had assembled his own team. Some of those members met with calamity between “X-Men: First Class” and “Days of Future Past.”
“Days of Future Past” unfolds 50 years into a dystopian future. Menacing robots known as ‘Sentinels’ have dominated mankind. Everything lies in ruins. The skulls and skeletons of millions of mutants and men litter the barren landscape. The Sentinels are implacable foes. These towering robots have been programmed to eliminate all mutants with extreme prejudice. A lesser group of X-Men, led by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page of “Whip It”), have managed to evade the Sentinels, but they realize they are living on borrowed time. They retreat to a camp in remote China. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) wants Kitty to project him back in time, so they can rewrite history and avert the rise of the Sentinels. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman of “X-Men 2”) volunteers to time-trip back to the 1970s, so he can contact the younger versions of Xavier and Magneto. Wolverine is the only X-Man who can travel that far back in time. His body can adapt to the hostile conditions of time travel. As it turns out, the Sentinels are the pride and joy of their inventor, Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones”), who has captured and tortured mutants.. Somehow, he managed to capture, torture, and kill most of Magneto’s gang after the Cuban missile crisis. Trask approaches Congress about his Sentinel project, but the politicians refused to fund him. Meanwhile, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence of “The Hunger Games”) plans to murder the diminutive Trask at the Paris Peace Conference to prevent him from launching his Sentinel program. Coming from the bleak future, Wolverine confronts both a reluctant Xavier (James McAvoy of “Atonement”) and a treacherous Magneto (Michael Fassbinder of “Prometheus”) about the necessity of thwarting Mystique from assassinating Trask.
Despite its two-hour plus running time, “Days of Future Past” neither wears out its welcome nor bogs down in a labyrinth of complications. Singer and Kinberg conjure up considerable tension and suspense. They keep throwing obstacles into the path of our heroes so that Wolverine and company have to struggle against incredible odds. Indeed, the box office triumph of this “X-Men” escapade has already prompted Twentieth Century Fox to green-light a sixth installment, “X-Men: Apocalypse.” You should linger and patiently watch the end credits for a glimpse of the awesome adversary who awaits our mutant heroes in the next outing. Don’t skip “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”