Home » New films: A Million Ways to Die in the West, Maleficent, Locke
Film Review

New films: A Million Ways to Die in the West, Maleficent, Locke

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A Million Ways to Die in the West
Co-Written and Directed by Seth MacFarlane

For decades, in books, television and film, we’ve romanticized the American West. Along the way, we’ve tended to ignore the hardships and the lack of conveniences we take for granted – as well as generally avoiding the plight of the native population. “A Million Days to Die in the West” does little to address that last point, but it does address the former topics quite amusingly.

For years, I’ve told students studying tourism that the wooden sidewalks and bumpy roads of locations like Old Sacramento don’t magically make a visit authentic – especially when one travels to and from the tourist site in an air conditioned modern car rather than spending months in a Conestoga wagon, in the same outfit, eating dried beans and drinking weeks old muddy creek water. One of my regular additional comments is that, in order to gain any sense of authenticity, for every four people on such a trip, at least one person has to agree to die of cholera in the car on the way home.

This is a film that’s written from that same perspective. It’s essentially and anti-Western, in that it’s set in the West but with a story being told from the perspective of a character who’s viewing his environment as though displaced in time. At times, early on, it even feels as though there’s going to be a big reveal about time travel – but instead we’re just left with Seth MacFarlane as Albert, a uniquely insightful and unsuccessful sheep farmer in a tiny, quiet, but still very dangerous frontier town.

The result is very funny at times, although a little too reliant on sophomoric body part and bodily function humor. It’s essentially a running riff on the awfulness of life in that time and place, with a story that’s loosely thrown together to provide material for the premise. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman are fun as Albert’s chaste best friend Edward and his overworked prostitute girlfriend Ruth (and that should tell you a lot about the humor). Charlize Theron is solid the disgruntled wife of the villain played sparingly by Liam Neeson. And there are several surprise cameos along the way.

The editing could have been a little tighter but it’s generally a fun film for those who don’t hold their history or their language in too high regard.

 

Maleficent
Directed by Richard Stromberg

There are, as the old adage goes, two sides to every story. And just as “Wicked” adds a backstory to the story of “The Wizard of Oz,” or as writers such as Orson Scott Card have retold “Ender’s Game” from the perspective of other characters, “Maleficent” revisits the classic Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.

It’s surprisingly well crafted as a story, as it provides background on the wicked witch/fairy godmother character of film/fable, but it does so without necessarily altering the story we’re already familiar with. As the narrator (the princess at an older age) tells us, things aren’t quite as you’ve always been told. Here we’re told a story that would still allow for others who haven’t been let in on the secret, including the local people within the story itself, to remember events the other way.

Angelina Jolie plays the adult Maleficent and is fine in the role, although not great – which also describes the success of the film as a whole. As a young fairy, she grew up in a fantastical world adjacent to the land where humans lived, and she fell in love with a boy whose ambitions and near ruthlessness led him to become an equally ambitious and ruthless king, with Maleficent’s wellbeing as collateral damage along the way. Which provides ample context for why she would be angry and choose to target his daughter, who essentially becomes the victim of a prior victim.

There are some interesting twists along the way, with at least two takes on personal assaults and violations, and enough things to talk about later for adults to engage in as well as kids. Which is welcome as it’s not one of the many animated films that attempts to pander to audiences with multiple levels of kid-friendly and adult-friendly humor.  It also avoids overstaying its welcome at a fairly brisk 97 minutes.

The end result is more clever as an exercise in storytelling than it is thoroughly entertaining – but it’s still far better than much of the animated fare that gets hurled at families.

 

Locke
Written and Directed by Steven Knight

Perhaps the most interesting film of the week, as is often the case, is the one that will draw a tiny fraction of the viewership of the other two. “Locke” is a remarkable exercise in filmmaking that many indie filmmakers (as well as many more accomplished filmmakers) could learn a lot from, as it does a lot with very little.

It’s one step removed from being a one person play, with all of the action taking place in the lead character’s car, as he tries to address multiple problems he has caused. The difference being that we, the audience, get to hear both sides of the various conversations he has on the phone while driving. And the voice acting from these unseen characters is really quite excellent.

The lead character is played by Tom Hardy, whose film career has been good to date but not exactly filled with the kinds of performances that would lead most to expect him to carry a film in a dialog heavy role. He’s also not immediately recognizable from his accent, playing Ivan Locke as Welsh, a fact he addressed in an interview that was screened recently as part of the New York Film Critics screening series at the Crest Theatre. He described wanting an accent that, in a British context, provided a sense of a man who had risen through his industry’s ranks from a hardworking beginning, without carrying any of the regional baggage that many British accents convey. Locke is also a man who is passionate about what he does – and it’s noteworthy that, as a writing exercise, “Locke” manages to convey that passion with respect to something that will seem so mundane to most of us: concrete. But many of our respective passions seem mundane to others.

Also described in that same interview, with writer/director Steven Knight, was the remarkable way that they filmed the project. After extensive rehearsals, the film was shot with Hardy in the car as it was towed on a trailer along open roads. Hardy performed the entire script from beginning to end multiple times each night, talking with the rest of the cast (who were all in a hotel suite) via a conference call. So each of the conversations heard on film was recorded several times, in real time. And the outcome is surprisingly compelling.

Of the three films described this week, “Locke” is the one that filmmakers and serious film fans will still be talking about years from now.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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