A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. Writer/director/actor/producer/song-and-dance man Seth MacFarlane, after winning at primetime cartoons, had a surprise hit with his movie debut Ted (2012). This put him in the rare and enviable position of doing whatever he wanted for his sophomore effort, with very little oversight from his studio bosses. Therein lies the problem. The concept is promising: a hard R comedy about the pitfalls and pratfalls of the Old West, top-loaded with celebrities and modern language. McFarlane was able to attract Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Wes Studi and a host of others to the project, and a Western would seem a near-perfect vehicle for his offbeat, smirking populism. As an early fan of Family Guy with nothing but nice things to say about Ted, I had every reason to think I would like A Million Ways. When it started to go off the rails midway through, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and hoped for the best. When it became clear that yes, this is as good as it's going to get, I gave myself over to profound disappointment.
MacFarlane stars as Albert Stark, a hapless sheep farmer from Old Stump, a dusty Podunk in the Arizona Territory, circa 1882. He lives with his cruel, disgusting parents and, as the movie opens, manages to talk himself out of being summarily cut down in a duel on Main Street. He sees this as resourceful, but his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) sees it as a sign of cowardice and gives him the boot. He seeks solace in whiskey and the companionship of his friends Edward and Ruth (Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, both making the most of minor material). Amidst his drunk, Albert befriends Anna (Theron) a gorgeous badass who's new in town. But Anna is hiding her marriage (which doesn't really make sense) to a notorious highwayman and murderer named Clinch (Neeson). Things develop much as one might expect them to.
As much as I admire how MacFarlane won himself the right to make whatever he wanted, the final product would have benefitted from outside input. It feels rushed, like he and the rest of the creative team couldn't believe their good fortune and so hustled right past the script-polishing stage into scouting locations and designing costumes. To their credit, the Old West details of the piece are pretty spot-on, and everyone must have had a lovely time putting it all together. But the comedy rarely, if ever, rises to the cleverness I've come to expect. The plot, too well worn to just call it familiar, lacks any surprise. The "edginess" of the material is defined by the villainous fop (the great Neil Patrick Harris) repeatedly shitting in hats and the word "fuck" in nearly every line of dialogue. Not so edgy, not so funny. R. 116m.
MALEFICENT. I'm not sure, but I think I may be both too old and too young for these fairy tale re-imaginings. I'm familiar with most of the source material, but don't have particularly strong nostalgia for it.
This time out, we get Sleeping Beauty from the witch's point of view. She, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), rules a magical fairy kingdom adjacent to a human fief. As a girl, she befriends a human boy named Stefan. Time and distance separate them, and in late adolescence he commits an unforgiveable violation. This sets Maleficent on a path of vengeance. In adulthood, she has ensconced herself in darkness, isolating herself from the influence of humans. Stefan (Sharlto Copley) has become a king and sires a daughter. Maleficent curses the daughter (I'll assume we're all familiar with this part). However, as the day of reckoning approaches, she and the princess kindle a friendship, and Maleficent begins to regret her previous intonations. But is it too late?
This is an atmospheric, good-looking fantasy, if a little heavy on CGI. Jolie, Copley and Elle Fanning, as the princess Aurora, all give convincing, eminently watchable performances. But there is precious little life written into the characters they play. The nascent love story between the young Maleficent and Stefan doesn't really make any sense, nor does his transition from smitten wastrel to bellicose king. An attempt is made to skew the material toward the dark, but there isn't enough to the story or the characters to make that darkness scary. I was surrounded by 4-year-olds as I watched Maleficent, and they were as bored as I was. Maybe more so — they all asked if it was over yet many, many times. PG. 98m.
— John J. Bennett
CHEF. Jon Favreau stars in this food-truck road movie with Robert Downey Jr. and John Leguizamo. Bring napkins. R. 115m.
EDGE OF TOMORROW. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt as soldiers battling aliens in a post-apocalyptic Groundhog Day loop. PG13. 113m.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Beat the rush and start crying now. Adapted from John Green's novel with Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as the young, star-crossed lovers. PG13. 126m.
REDWOOD HIGHWAY. A low-carbon footprint road movie in which a retired woman takes an 80-mile walk to see the coast again, meeting family and strangers on the way. PG13. 90m.
BELLE. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as the peculiarly privileged and disenfranchised daughter of a British admiral and a slave in pre-abolition England. PG. 104m.
BLENDED. A Sandler-Barrymore rom-com in which a mismatched pair of single parents get together for the kids on a tropical vacation. PG13. 117m.
GODZILLA. The big guy returns with puny, human co-stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Ken Watanabe. The effects impress, but there's too much going on to focus on the lizard and its destructive glory. PG13. 123m.
MILLION DOLLAR ARM. John Hamm trades highballs for baseballs in this sweet and well-crafted Disney sports movie about an agent trying to turn young, Indian cricket players into Major League pitching stars. PG. 124m.
NEIGHBORS. Suburban parents (Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen) go to war with the frat next door and their oft-shirtless prankster leader (Zac Efron) in this crude but effective comedy R. 97m.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. The mutants go time traveling to save the world. Pacing and exposition are rocky, but the action and the cast make an enjoyable distraction. PG13. 131m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill