Two and a half stars (out of four)
Rating: PG (Fantasy action and violence, frightening images)
Angelina Jolie has always kinda scared me. Not because she used to wear vials of blood around her neck and sleep with knives under her pillow, but because she’s always been something of a goddess, so chilly and unapproachable. Maybe that’s why she’s perfect as the iconic villain of Disney’s “Maleficent,” a revisionist history of the studio’s own classic animated film “Sleeping Beauty.”
As a kid, the sorceress and her eerie, horned silhouette struck terror into my heart. Jolie melts into the stuff of my childhood nightmares so effortlessly, with cheekbones Marlene Dietrich would kill for and a purr that’s pure, silky evil. “Maleficent” is a surprisingly sympathetic take on the object of my youthful fears, putting a clever enough spin on the gorgeously animated 1959 “Sleeping Beauty” with a refreshingly feminist twist.
The movie imagines a colorful back story for the fairy tale’s famous baddie, envisioning her as the winged, nature-loving guardian of an enchanted forest whose betrayal at the hand’s of an ambitious lover drives her to cast that notorious narcoleptic curse upon an innocent princess. This alternate myth gives Jolie ample opportunity to display many facets of an intriguing character. Clad in leathery black, there’s something of the sexy dominatrix about her but she’s also vulnerable and funny and downright tragic with a magnificent sneer and a killer villain’s laugh.
Unlike co-stars Sharlto Copley, who plays the maniacally paranoid King Stephan, and Elle Fanning, as the simpering Aurora (apparently, it is too much to ask to have two interesting female characters in one movie), Jolie ingeniously underplays what could have been an unbearably hammy performance.
“Maleficent” is heavy on visual effects. It was directed by first-timer Robert Stromberg, a former VFX artist and supervisor. He’s populated the film with an ensemble of obnoxious CGI fairies and cutesy woodland critters. Not all of them are convincing, but Jolie is the only special effect this movie really needs.
A Million Ways to Die in the West
One and a half stars
Rating: R (strong crude and sexual content, language, violence and drug material)
There may be “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” but there are only a handful of jokes hilarious enough to send yer whiskey snortin’ out yer nose, pardner.
Writer-director Seth MacFarlane seems to be on to something by playing this Western parody mostly straight. As the title suggests, the film pokes fun at the often lethal living conditions of the 1800s frontier, but the concept proves limited. This ain’t no “Blazing Saddles.”
At first, the sight of villagers in the tiny Arizona outpost of Old Stump perishing in sudden and random ways — getting squashed by a block of ice or gored by a runaway bull — is mighty amusing, but the well of laughs quickly runs dry. What’s left is a fairly predictable story about a misfit sheep farmer (played by MacFarlane) who befriends a like-minded, sharp-shootin’ cowgirl (a game Charlize Theron), only to run afoul of her outlaw husband (Liam Neeson).
The film’s gags are just as irreverent, raunchy and politically incorrect as you’d expect from the creator of “Family Guy” and “Ted” and the Oscar’s most controversial host. There’s a running joke involving the town virgin (Giovanni Ribisi) dating the town whore (Sarah Silverman) and Neil Patrick Harris does unspeakable things to a couple of dandy bowler hats, but there is a general dearth of laugh-out-loud moments. Even a moustache-themed dance number doesn’t feel nearly as clever or strange as it should.
There’s a reason MacFarlane doesn’t usually star in his own films. He’s just too smug to play the sarcastic but likable everyman. But the ubiquitous Harris is a hoot as his romantic rival, the preening proprietor of the local moustachery. There’s also a priceless joke that almost makes sitting through this overlong, underwritten comedy worthwhile, at least for “Back to the Future” fans.
Photos by Disney, Lorey Sebastian