Monday, June 30, 2014

A Couple Of Indies: WORDS AND PICTURES & THE ROVER


A couple of indies currently playing at an arthouse near me...

WORDS AND PICTURES

(Dir. Fred Schepisi, 2013)


Fred Schepisi's WORDS AND PICTURES, written by Gerald Di Pego, pulls off a mean feat - it manages to be cloyingly cutesy and numbingly pretentious at the same time.

Taking place at a fictional posh prep school in New England (filmed in Canada), Clive Owen portrays a scruffy, douchey English teacher who's way into words, while Juliette Binoche plays a newly arrived art teacher, who, you guessed it, is all about pictures.

The couple clash, and Owen comes up with some kind of school-wide competition in which words and pictures will fight it out via the students work.Owen's job is on the line because he hasn't produced anything of substance in years, and he has a drinking problem (a "hobby," he calls it).

Binoche suffers from rheumatoid arthritis which limits her ability to paint - she does manage though with the help of crutches, and braces to do some Jackson Pollack-type splatter art.

Owen's character - the former literary sensation going to seed - is one we've seen many times (replace the booze with pot and you've got Michael Douglas in WONDER BOYS), and his pseudo inspirational teaching scenes, are insufferable especially when he tells his students that a haiku is an 
early tweet.

Binoche and Owen, of course, get together which has the film seemingly say that the battle of words against pictures inevitably ends in a tie with sex.

Director Schepisi (ROXANNE, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION) has made some drecky rom dramedies in his time but this saccharine and preachy exercise is the worst I've seen of his.

The famous quote, oft repeated in this film, A picture is worth a thousand words, may be true, but this motion picture sure isn't worth anywhere close to that. Which is why I'm stopping here.

THE ROVER (Dir. David Michôd, 2014)


Set in Australia “ten years after the collapse,” as an opening title tells us, there’s definitely a MAD MAX vibe going on in this new thriller from ANIMAL KINGDOM writer/director David Michôd.

But don’t go looking for the action, or commentary on modern society, that the soon to be rebooted MAD MAX franchise has as its calling cards, as this is a spare, single-minded narrative, that never really gets going.

The bare bones of the premise posit a grizzled Guy Pearce, only identifying himself as a former farmer, trying to track down his car, which we see getting stolen at the film’s beginning by a roving gang of skuzzy criminals led by Scoot McNairy (KILLING THEM SOFTLY, ARGO, MONSTERS).

Pearce enlists Robert Pattinson (TWILIGHT, COSMOPOLIS), as the brother of one of the thieves, to go on a trek across the infinite Australian desert to find them and retrieve his vehicle. The slowly paced adventure across the outback that Pearce and Pattinson go on mostly involves going to desolate locations, whether they be an abandoned town, an opium den, a seedy motel, or an army base, and shooting creepy characters in them in the head.

I won’t spoil the mystery of why Pearce is so driven to get his car back, but I’ll just say that the film is too dreary and drawn out for the conclusion to have the emotional impact it's trying for.

As intense and invested as Pearce is, his character is impenetrable, much like the rest of the movie, but Pattinson actually contributes some of his finest acting so far in his career. The on the cusp of manhood theme that James Frecheville embodied in ANIMAL KINGDOM bleeds through Pattinson’s edgy acting as the unhinged, possibly brain-damaged youngster caught up in a messy mission.

Apart from Pearce and Pattinson’s on point performances, and a smattering of blinding visuals courtesy of cinematographer Natasha Braier, THE ROVER is a dull slog through tired terrain. I bet it could be cut down into a killer 20 minute short though.

More later…

Friday, June 27, 2014

OBVIOUS CHILD: A Plucky Abortion Rom Com


Opening today at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, the Chelsea Theatre in Chapel Hill, and the Rialto Theater in Raleigh:

OBVIOUS CHILD (Dir. Gillian Robespierre, 2014)


With its small comedy club scenes, and shabby New York apartment settings, it sometimes seems throughout this film like comedienne Jenny Slate has hi-jacked an episode of Louie.

Gilliam Robespierre’s writing/directing debut also has got a Girls thing going on too, with its navel gazing mindset, and that Slate and Gaby Hoffmann, who plays her roommate, have both appeared on the popular HBO program.

But the Sundance comedy OBVIOUS CHILD, aka “that rom com about abortion,” mixes its own affable, very amusing sensibility in with these familiar elements, largely due to Slate’s neurotically nerdy performance as a Brooklyn comic who gets knocked up.

The film begins with Slate getting dumped (“dumped up with” as she puts it) after delivering what could be considered a way too personal stand-up routine. Adding to her self-aware sad sack existence is that she will soon lose her day job as a clerk because the bookstore she works at is closing (the Greenwich Village store - Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Books, which actually exists and isn’t closing).

A drunken one-night stand with a nice guy stranger (Jake Lacy, from the last season of The Office U.S.) leaves our heroine with a bun in the oven, but being young, messed up, and way in over her head, Slate decides to have an abortion, scheduled for Valentine’s Day.

Going through the motions, and emotions of ending a pregnancy, the film never makes pro or anti-abortion statements. Nobody tries to talk her out of it, there aren’t sign wielding protesters at the clinic, nothing like that. Slate’s mother, Polly Draper of Thirtysomething fame, even makes a relieved joke when she’s told: “I thought you were going to tell me you were moving to California!”

I, like many, was first introduced to Slate on Saturday Night Live. She was a cast member for one year (2009-2010), and will go down in SNL history for dropping the “F-bomb” (in her debut sketch called “Biker Chick Chat” no less). After that she’s had memorable turns on the aforementioned Girls, Parks and Recreation (as Aziz Ansari’s crazy on again/off again girlfriend Mona-Lisa Saperstein), and the Showtime series House of Lies.

This movie most likely won’t make Slate a household name, but it’s a solid first starring vehicle for her. If you can get through all her fart jokes, you’ll find a winning funny personality especially in touching scenes with Richard Kind as her schlubby father.

Also standing out is a hilariously profane drunk dialing sequence in which Slate repeatedly leaves messages with her ex as she goes further and further off the deep end. Her convincingly over-the-top acting is combined with some deft editing (by Casey Brooks and Jacob Craycroft).

The up and coming actress also holds her own with David Cross as a somewhat sleazy fellow comedian, Gabe Liedman as a much nicer fellow comic, and certainly Lacy, who has a quick-witted sense of humor that appealingly fits with Slate’s. There’s undeniable chemistry between the couple when they come together on what Lacy calls “the best worst Valentine's Day I've ever had.”

Robespierre refashioned her 2009 short film of the same name, which also starred Slate, into this full length feature, but at just 83 minutes it feels like an extended short. I chuckled a lot and loved its crude, goofy energy, but it is a tad slight on the narrative side. Some characters and tangents could’ve stood a little more fleshing out.

So it’s a tad under-cooked, but OBVIOUS CHILD, named after the 1991 Paul Simon song, has heart and humor a plenty. It may be a hard sell to some folks because of its abortion theme and possible unfamiliarity with Slate, but I bet most art house film goers will come out of Robespierre’s plucky little comedy smiling.

More later...

Friday, June 20, 2014

Clint Eastwood's JERSEY BOYS Has More Clichés Than It Does Classic Songs


Opening today at a multiplex near you...

JERSEY BOYS (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2014)


Jake Kasdan's 2007 spoof WALK HARD was supposed to have killed off all those cheesy music biopic tropes, but, dammit, here there all are again in full force in Clint Eastwood's new Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons film, JERSEY BOYS, based on the hit Tony winning Broadway musical.

There's also that tale of how Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio, and Nick Massi came together from humble beginnings to become one of the biggest selling bands of the 20th century is told to us by each of the quartet, one by one, directly to the camera, in a manner that recalls Scorsese (from GOODFELLAS to WOLF OF WALL STREET), just nowhere as stylish.

John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for the part on Broadway, portrays front man Frankie Valli, a singer whose falsetto can make a mafioso cry. Christopher Walken is that friendly made man that cries when hearing Young sing, and is here to lend the film its only instance of big name star power.

Vincent Piazza (Boardwalk Empire) plays slick fast-talking lead guitarist Tommy DeVito, who gets the band in heavy debt to the mob, while the other members, Bob Gaudio, and Nick Massi (Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda, who played the roles on the original show's first national tour) barely register, even when it's their turns to narrate.

The screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (based on their Broadway book) does a poor job of putting the Four Seasons into the context of the times. The narrative starts in the mid-'50s, but by the time the band has a bunch of hits to its name, we're not sure when many scenes are supposed to take place. 

There's nothing to tell us that Valli's solo hit “Can't Take My Eyes Off You,” which they, of course, make a big production number out of, was recorded and released in 1967, the Summer of Love. No mention of the Beatles, or hippies, or Vietnam, or who the President was, or whatever.

The fashions simply go from Mad Men-era duds into '70s Disco-era threads, with no reference to anything else going in the world outside of the Four Seasons bubble.

The well stocked soundtrack, chocked full of the band's hit songs such as “Big Girls Don't Cry,” “Sherry,” and “Rag Doll” (very convincingly sung by Young) keep the film bopping along, but the overwhelming amount of clichés in this by-the-numbers biopic outnumbers even the wealth of classic tracks that are crammed into its bloated 134 minute running time.

And for a film that comes on like a modeled mixture of THAT THING YOU DO and GOODFELLAS, it sure has a clunky flow.

But beyond all the thick Italian-American accents, depictions of street crime, and fourth wall breakage, JERSEY BOYS has a legit connection to Scorsese's 1990 gangster classic. Joe Pesci was a friend to the guys, especially DeVito, and is played here by Joey Russo, who does a passable impersonation. They really didn't have to have him say “Funny, how?” as if to show us the origin of his classic scene in GOODFELLAS though. They really didn't.

This just calls attention to the fact that, try as he might, Eastwood just doesn't have the Scorsesean swagger needed to make this material anything special above the music biopic average. 

Eastwood's bland approach here - it's like he's never seen WALK THE LINE, RAY, THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY, COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, LA BAMBA, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!, THE DOORS, et al (Hell, it's like he's never even watched his own Charlie Parker biopic BIRD!) - just renders this into another TV movie that will be forever rerun on VH1 Classic.

Eastwood is far from one of my favorite directors, but he's shown a solid sense of storytelling in many of his directorial efforts. But JERSEY BOYS is a story that's been told so many times before that it would take something more inspired than just a close approximation of the music, and a rote run-through of the artists' rise and fall, to make it really sing.

Whether its the recycled chart toppers, or the regurgitated plot points, there's not a single original note that this mediocre musical plays.

More later...

Friday, June 13, 2014

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2: The Film Babble Blog Review


HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2
(Dir. Dean DuBois, 2014)


While I largely prefer Pixar’s output, DreamWorks Animation has had some real winners, and their 2010 hit HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is one of their very best.

An adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s series of children’s books, Dean DuBois’ wildly entertaining fantasy film is filled with a lot of heart, spirit, and a spectacular sense of adventure. It's also my 11-year old nephew Leo’s favorite movie (he claims to have watched it 18 times). 

So I took Leo (along with one of his friends, and my Sister-in-Law) to see an advance screening of the film’s follow-up, opening today at a multiplex near you, and am delighted to report that it’s a superb sequel on par with the original.

Writer/director Dubois is again at the helm, with returning lead Jay Baruchel, and thankfully, the entire all-star voice cast, including Gerald Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Jonah Hill (currently in another great sequel opening today) back for another round of training cute dragons.

Baruchel’s Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III is now in his late teens, living in his beloved mountainside village of Berk, now a peaceful haven for both Vikings and dragons. Well, as peaceful as it can be with rowdy Vikings and fire-breathing dragons living together.

With the advance in animation, Hiccup's trusted dragon pal Toothless (voiced with a combination of elephant and horse noise mixed with Sound Designer Randy Thom's voice) looks even more like my wife and my pet black cat Trillium Whorl.

Anyway, joining the cast is Hiccup's long lost mother Valka, beautifully voiced by Cate Blanchett. Valka has been away all this time creating her own haven for dragons, a ginormous island of ice populated by thousands of the mythical creatures where they are safe from dragon trappers and the blood-thirsty conqueror Drago (voiced by Djimon Hounsou). That is, until Drago learns of the habitat's existence.

The film culminates in a massive battle on the shores of the ice island involving Drago's army, a band of Hiccup's fellow Berk-sters, and two colossal alpha dragons called Bewilderbeasts.

Amid its epic scale, and richness of humor, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 has strong emotional weight to it. Hiccup's father Stoick, voiced by Butler in what may be my favorite work of his, re-uniting with Blanchett's Valka is very touching, and sets the scene for an uplifting song and dance duet between them of the Celtic-style ballad For the Dancing and the Dreaming,” contributed by the Pogues' Shane MacGowan.

It's also a smart sequel that knows that for the stakes to really be high, a beloved character has to meet their demise (don't worry, no Spoilers!).

With many scenes that feature background dragon antics while characters in the foreground converse, and the newly minted franchise's trademark soaring flying sequences, there's always pleasurable eye candy going on, but none of which is notably enhanced by the 3D, so save your money and take the kids to a 2D screening.

My nephew Leo, who loved the movie, told me that DreamWorks already have a HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 3 in the works set for 2016. Of course they do - that's simply showbiz. But, if they can make a sequel as strong and spirited as this one, more power to them.

More later...

22 JUMP STREET: A Funny As F*** Follow-up That Makes Fun Of Itself


Now playing at a multiplex near us all:


22 JUMP STREET 
(Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, 2014)


The first movie looked like it was going to be crappy, but actually turned out to be fairly funny in its riffing on being a big screen version of a ‘80s undercover cop show.

The sequel amps it up by riffing on being a sequel to the surprise hit big screen version of a ‘80s undercover cop show.

And I laughed a lot more this time. A lot more.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum return as officers Schmidt and Jenko, the partying, gun-toting duo who engage in their own particular brand of bromantic banter. This time, much of their banter revolves around being on an investigation that's just like the last one, except now it's college, not high school, and they have a much bigger budget.

To amusingly justify the movie's title, the police team’s headquarters has been moved across the street into a bigger church with vastly upgraded facilities resulting in many comments about how needlessly expensive everything looks. 


Ice Cube, reprising his hilariously drawn role as Captain Dickson, even remarks that the place looks like it's out of IRON MAN.

Posing as college students at the fictional MC State (short for Metropolitan City State), Hill and Tatum's assignment involves finding who's been dealing the dangerous drug “WhyPhy” (WiFi).

In the process, Tatum falls in with some air-headed football players (Wyatt Russell and Jimmy Tatro), while Hill, in the guise of a slam poet, falls for an art student (Amber Stevens). The film here toys with rom com conventions, but funnily enough more with Tatum connecting with Russell (Kurt's son btw) than Hill's courtship of Stevens; they even make a meta joke about them having a meet-cute via the merging of a meat sandwich and a Q-Tip.

Popping up throughout the guys' campus shenanigans, are cameos by Patton Oswalt as a psychology professor, standup partners/identical twins the Lucas Brothers as drugged-up dorm neighbors, Peter Stormare as an international criminal only known as “Ghost,” along with, from the first film, Dave Franco, and Rob Riggle, now prison inmate lovers (Franco, not by choice).

Riggle was the previous films' secret bad guy, and there's one in this one too, but don't worry I won't spoil that tasty twist.

Gags about sequel tropes are joined by gags about how old the leads look to be college students (“I got 99 problems but being young ain't one,” Jillian Bell as Stevens' acerbic roommate quips), gags about how close to gay these guys get in their bro-bonding, gags about college sex (the walk of shame bits are dead on), just gags about everything along these lines that they could stuff into the 112 minute running time.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher, the dudes behind the also ultra meta, and equally hilarious THE LEGO MOVIE, working from a screenplay by Michael Bacall (writer of the first one), Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman, never let up on the film's sense of fun right through to end where they go from making fun of sequels to taking on entire franchises.

Hill and Tatum are very funny here, they play off each other brilliantly and again prove that their pairing is no fluke, but Ice Cube, in his expanded role, is an angry comedy machine! In a restaurant-set scene in which he finds out that his daughter is dating Hill, Cube's performance is a tour de force of comic acting.

22 JUMP STREET is a funny as fuck follow-up that makes fun of itself for its simple cynical existence as a sequel, but it never makes fun of us for watching it. It wants us to be as in on the joke as they are, and have us all laugh together. With this many surefire laughs, and well tapped talent on display, I even felt a bit laughed out afterwards. Still, make sure you stay through the end credits for the final stinger.

Oddly, one of the only joke misfires was a reference to the comedy stylings of Tracy Morgan *. This was, of course, filmed last year, and it's so not a diss, but it got a bit of a gasp from the audience at the screening I attended. However, that bit of bad timing didn't throw off the crowd for long; they were rolling as soon as the next joke came around, which was less than 10 seconds later.

* If you haven't heard, Tracy Morgan is currently in critical but stable condition after his car crash last weekend. Film Babble Blog sends its best wishes for Morgan, the other victims of the accident, and their families.

More later...

Friday, June 06, 2014

PALO ALTO: Franco Adapted Aimlessly


Now playing at an art house near me:

PALO ALTO (Dir. Gia Coppola, 2013)



James Franco's 2010 book of short stories that you didn't read gets adapted by a member of Francis Ford Coppola's family that you've never heard of in this aimless depiction of aimless Californian high school kids that you should skip.

The directorial debut of Coppola's grand daughter Gia, PALO ALTO introduces us to a small group of characters, neither of which feel fully fleshed out.

Let's see, there's a couple of stoner buddies, Teddy and Fred, played by Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer's son) and Nat Wolff; who get in a hit-and-run accident early in the film. Teddy was driving so he ends up with community service, while Fred hooks up with Zoe Levin - a girl derided by her classmates as a “blowjob whore.

 
More importantly there's Emma Roberts as a sensitive soccer playing virgin who baby-sits for her flirty coach (Franco, slyly stepping into his own material).

We've also got Val Kilmer as Robert's stoner stepfather, Jacqui Getty as her disconnected mother, and Coppola family friend Don Novello (Father Guido Sarducci, to fans of classic SNL) as an art teacher who may have the key to the film's supposed message.

Novello, in an anecdote devised as a criticism of Wolff's tossed off artwork, speaks of having a near death experience in which he realized he was in somebody else's shoes. It was somebody named Bob's “tunnel of death” and he could reverse the trajectory.

That message is all well and good, but the film's loose structure and artsy montages of these folks' meaningless existence doesn't earn the film the weighty conclusion its going for. It's as half baked as any of the threads here.

Because of the rowdy party scenes throughout, I felt like the film itself was a party; albeit one that I wasn't a friend of anyone there and didn't want to stick around. You know those lame parties where suddenly somebody cool shows up and you think 'hey, this might good'?

Well, that's how it felt here when Chris Messina (The Mindy Project, ARGO, JULIE & JULIA) appeared as Wolff's stoner father (yes, everybody is a stoner here) who appears to try to put the moves on Kilmer's Teddy. But after one brief scene that doesn't amount to much, Messina is gone and we're back with these dull, drifting drones.

PALO ALTO doesn't seem to have anything to say about these people. The theme of waste comes to mind when seeing Kilmer toss his just complimented on art into a hallway trashcan, or in the way the camera lingers on a pink milkshake thrown onto the pavement, but that idea is just one of many that isn't followed through. I will say that Autumn Durald's cinematography is often stunning, however.

Franco's creepy coach character, whose pleading to Roberts to be with him may be one of the hardest to watch moments in his entire career, has no depth either. Its a small sideline role that gives us no insight to who the guy is, except that he's a pedophile, but that we could guess rat off the bat.

Roberts, who should be given credit for doing her best with this dire material, blankly says in one party scene: “I think all movies and TV and video games these days are pointless.” Well, not all, but this one sure is.

More later...

EDGE OF TOMORROW: Terrible Title; Terrific Presentation


Opening today at a multiplex near you:

EDGE OF TOMORROW (Dir. Doug Liman, 2014)


First off, it’s a terrible title. It’s so generic; it sounds like a James Bond movie or Star Trek episode title. Maybe it should’ve been called: BETTER THAN OBLIVION.

Secondly, this really doesn’t need to be in 3D. It’s another one of those films that underwent a post conversion into the gimmicky format, and, as I’ve complained about many times before, it makes the image darker and less vivid.

But those gripes aside, Tom Cruise’s latest sci-fi action vehicle is a smart, funny, and insanely inventive entry in the summer blockbuster sweepstakes of 2014. Sure, its high concept premise can succinctly summed up as ALIENS meets GROUNDHOG DAY, but it takes that thread and goes its own clever places with it.


Cruise, as an army major who's so not a top gun, is forced into the front lines of an invasion of earth by squid-like aliens, nicknamed "mimics." In a Normandy beach battle, obviously reminiscent of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, Cruise, outfitted in bulky body gear, kills a mimic but then gets melted in a bath of its acidic blood.

Then Cruise wakes up on the previous day at the army base at Heathrow Airport. Everything that happened to him before - Bill Paxton as a FULL METAL JACKET-style Sergeant yelling at him, members of his platoon ridiculing him, and multi-tentacled monsters murdering him - happens again, despite his crazy-sounding warnings or attempts to reverse the situation.

Very amusingly, Cruise's day of death resets again and again, with our protagonist each time gaining a little more info on how to plot more successful moves throughout it. This is where Emily Blunt, harder edged than we've ever seen her, comes in as a heroic Special Forces soldier, who Cruise learns has once been a looper herself.

You see, as Noah Taylor as a scruffy scientist explains, the mimics have the ability to reset the time stream in order to improve their strategic edge in combat, and when Cruise and Blunt killed and got wasted in the remains of an Alpha Mimic, they absorbed their time looping powers.

In punchy training montages, that surely will be as scrutinized by film geeks trying to figure how many days or years Cruise relives the same day as Bill Murray's montages in GROUNDHOG DAY have been, our hero gets into shape, gains confidence, and, of course, falls for Blunt.

The movie, adapted by frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John Henry Butterworth from Hiroshi Sakuraska's 2004 novel All You Need Is Kill, loses a bit of its power when Cruise himself loses his time-looping power, and its big action climax involving massive destruction of the Louvre is pretty predictable, but overall Cruise's sharp performance carries us through a series of gripping sequences making up one of the most compelling narratives I've seen at the multiplex in recent memory.

A lot of the fun is seeing Cruise's character evolve from being a stuffy coward to being a lean, mean fighting machine, something the man can still successfully pull off at 52 years of age. All the baggage that biases many movie-goers against Cruise - couch jumping, creepy accusations that he brainwashed Katie Holmes with Scientology, etc. - all disappear a few minutes into EDGE OF TOMORROW. 

The man's charisma even helps the exposition scenes to be engaging. In one of them, when he tells Taylor and Blunt “Terrific presentation, terrific!” he may as well be talking about the film itself.

More later...

Monday, June 02, 2014

2 Takes On Seth MacFarlane's Newest



I've decided to excuse myself from seeing and reviewing Seth MacFarlane's new comedy Western A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, simply because, hey, I'm not a fan of the man's brand of comedy. You could probably guess that based on my review of TED

However, I was interested in what a few friends, who are MacFarlane fans, thought of the film, which has gathered mostly negative critical reaction (it's at 34% on Rotten Tomatoes) but is at a respectable #3 placing at the box office.

First up, William Fonvielle, who maintains the fine film blog Filmvielle, posted a review Friday. Here's the first half of it:

Seth MacFarlane specializes in Whitman's Samplers of comedy. Keep digging, and sooner or later you'll find a joke you enjoy. Unfortunately, in the case of A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, he plays to an audience of mostly diabetics.

Hot off his smash 2012 directorial debut TED, A MILLION WAYS sports all the makings of a passion project for MacFarlane - the sort of sprawling, big budget comedy he can make after earning so much money directly out of the gate. Why else cast himself as the leading man, in addition to directing and co-writing, after a 15 year career spent largely behind the scenes?

Because he can, that's why. Not to knock the guy. That he took this long to step in front of the camera, after spending much of his 30s doing everything else, shows impressive restraint. And he needn't have worried anyway. As a movie star, he brings a completely nonthreatening presence. He doesn't spin gold, but he doesn't embarrass himself either. The same sort of effortless charm you'd expect this deep in a career whose success is rather remarkable considering how many comedy fans fantasize about his head on a stick.

His entire career is really an exercise in conundrums. Does he want to be an old school ENTERTAINER, telling consciously lame one-liners and crooning the standards with utmost sincerity? Does he want to swim in the shallow wading pool of shit and dick jokes? Or possibly be the savior of intellectualism in modern America, blending low and high comedy with aplomb (anyone who's caught him on Real Time With Bill Maher knows he ain't no slouch, brains-wise)?

Such questions extend to A MILLION WAYS. It's a movie that can't decide quite what it wants to be, so it decides to be nothing. As said, MacFarlane stars as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer in an upstart 1882 Arizona town whose girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried in a nothing role that exists purely to spark conflict) leaves him after he backs out of a duel. 

Soon she's in the arms of another man, local mustachioed gentleman Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, twirling his ‘stache to utmost evil glee), leaving a distraught Albert to wallow in the misery that is the Old West. All until the mysterious and beautiful Anna (Charlize Theron). She's beautiful. She's an expert gunslinger. She also falls for MacFarlane, because MarFarlane made the movie.

Read the rest of William's review, in which he quips that the film boasts all the laser focus of a visually impaired child set loose in the bumper cars for the first time, at Filmvielle.

Secondly, Kevin Brewer, whose podcast postmodcast I've guested on (listen to the latest one here) saw the movie over the weekend and emailed me his thoughts:

“Seth MacFarlane is a divisive pop culture figure, both an undeniable talent and the leading purveyor of fart jokes.

MacFarlane has produced five television series for Fox: one brilliant animated series, two knockoffs of that one, one unwatchable live action sitcom and Cosmos, the critically acclaimed space documentary with Neil deGrasse Tyson. 

His big band album was nominated for a Grammy. He hosted the Oscars. He directed TED and wrote the lyrics for its best song nominee, ‘Everybody Needs a Best Friend.’

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, MacFarlane’s new satire of 1960s Westerns and their macho bullshit, is more ambitious than TED and more coherent than Family Guy. It is often hilarious. It mostly works. It is, of course, excessively scatological.

Along with writing (with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild), directing and producing, MacFarlane also stars as cowardly sheep farmer Albert Stark in Arizona in 1882 - ‘a terrible place in time’ -probably because he can’t help himself. He is the bastard son of Mel Brooks (BLAZING SADDLES), making out with Charlize Theron. He is also quite likeable, probably because he looks like grown-up Peter Brady.

There are fart, piss and cum jokes, because, you know, Seth MacFarlane. There is also a carnival game with runaway slaves as the punchline. In the middle of all of that, there is a dance number and fancy score (by Joel McNeely) that proves MacFarlane is capable of much more.

The fact that MacFarlane talked Theron (laughing at all of his jokes), Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried and Neil Patrick Harris (with graphic diarrhea) into this thing is half the fun. Theron makes fun of Seyfried’s big doe-y eyes, which takes balls, because those peepers are two of the most adorable things in Hollywood.
If it matters, Theron dumps boyfriend Neeson, and Seyfriend dumps boyfriend MacFarlane. Seyfried finds Harris, and MacFarlane finds Theron, which pisses off Neeson. Wes Studi, long-suffering Native American supporting character of Westerns, provides spiritual guidance and a drug-induced trip to MacFarlance’s character. Neither MacFarlane nor Brooks have given Indians any revenge for their genocide. Neither has Tarantino.

Sarah Silverman (who else) provides vaginal humor. She is a prolific prostitute who has never had sex with boyfriend Giovanni Ribisi. She is no Madeline Kahn. There are four winning cameos, including one by an Academy Award winner that avenges the earlier goof on slavery. They might be the smartest bits in the movie.”

Sure looks like Kevin liked the film a lot more than William. Does anyone else out there want to speak up?

More later...