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Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

Lots of setup, some payoff.


A Million Ways to Die in the West is a new comedy/western from Seth MacFarlane (Ted). The plot loosely follows MacFarlane's character, Albert, a nice but cowardly sheep farmer who is tired of the dangers of living in the West in 1882. After his girlfriend Louise, (Amanda Seyfreid) leaves him for a more macho suitor, Foy, (a mustachioed Neil Patrick Harris), Albert must learn how to shoot from newcomer, Anna, (Charlize Theron) so that he can challenge Foy to a duel and win back Louise.

After the success of  MacFarlane's 2012 directorial debut, Ted, he was given a lot more freedom in making his second film. He chose a Western, a genre which is notoriously appreciated by filmmakers, but not as often by audiences. While his nostalgia for classic Western's comes across, and parts of the movie succeed as a pleasant romantic Western mixed with modern sensibilities, much of MacFarlane's signature comedy misses the mark.

The film takes the dirty jokes as far as you would expect, with plenty of gross out gags making full use of the R-rating. Most of the fart jokes fall flat, but a few have enough of a twist to entertain. Sarah Silverman has a lot of fun delivering some pretty obscene dialogue as a prostitute that is waiting until marriage to have sex with her boyfriend because she's Christian. MacFarlane knows how to push the gross-out gags as far as possible without crossing the line.

The jokes that work most consistently are the violent gags, throwing you off guard with sudden, excessive gore. In one scene, a racially charged gag came out of nowhere, but it was one of the most effective, sharp jokes in the film. Much of the humor is cheap, however, every once in a while a smart or bold joke will catch you off guard. The other consistently amusing parts are the series of cameos thrown in. Some of these have been spoiled in recent trailers, but the familiar faces brought in add a level of randomness and self-awareness that really energizes the movie.

The visuals are impressive, and MacFarlane was clearly working on a big budget. It seems excessive, however, when you think about how much trivial things cost such as CGI sheep in a hallucination scene. Still, some of the cinematography of the 1882 Arizona desert is beautiful.

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The weakest aspect of the film is its pacing and story structure. While Ted had similar script issues, they are magnified here, as one narrative arc wraps itself up neatly before an entirely new conflict is introduced in the last third of the movie. Liam Neeson's outlaw character (arguably the main antagonist) does not become relevant to the plot until after Albert has already confronted a different rival. This lack of focus makes for uneven pacing. The movie has lots of setups, but a significant lack of satisfying payoffs. Some plot threads go nowhere, even if they have huge comedic potential.

Overall, A Million Ways to Die in the West offers plenty of low-brow laughs, and a few smart one too. It doesn't always follow through and deliver on the potential of its own comedic setups. It is a random, plotless, but entertaining romantic Western comedy

A Million Ways to Die in the West comes out May 30, 2014.

Rating: 6/10 Stars

Review: Neighbors

Equal parts clever, gross, and cute. A celebration of partying, and a melancholy look at what it means to grow up.

Neighbors is a funny new comedy about a couple with a newborn baby who face unforeseen obstacles when a frat moves into the house next door. This premise lends itself to escalating parties, pranks, and conflict. While the film is packed to the brim with gags, many of which are gasp inducing or laugh out loud funny, it ultimately succeeds by giving both sides interesting characters you can simultaneously root for and against.

It stars Seth Rogen (This is the End) and Rose Byrne (Insidious) as a young couple trying to be good parents and remain cool at the same time. In the frat next door, Zac Efron (That Awkward Moment) plays the president, fully committed to the brotherhood, and Dave Franco (21 Jump Street) plays his vice president/best friend who is more focused on his future.

This is director Nicolas Stoller's funniest movie since 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall. At times, the laughing was so loud in the packed theater that I couldn't hear the dialogue for the next joke. However, the type of humor jumps all over the place. This is the kind of movie that uses both male and female nudity for comedic effect, yet also focuses entire scenes on escalating puns or a baby dressed in a series of adorable costumes. What I mean by this is that is it has few boundaries, and will go pretty much anywhere for a joke.

While there are funny moments in either the individual family or frat scenes, the comedy is at its highest when the two worlds collide. Watching the Rogen and Byrne trying a little too hard to play it cool when first visiting the frat is fun. Things really escalate however, when the animosity comes out between them. A scene at a party where Byrne has to manipulate Franco into hooking up with Efron's girlfriend drew applause from the crowd.

The party scenes are visually exciting and fun to watch, but also slightly problematic because they seem gratuitous at times, glorifying a frat lifestyle that the movie criticizes at other points. Where the film succeeds is painting the characters on both sides as flawed but likable. For all its celebration of partying and revenge there is a melancholy undertone showing the dangers of clinging to the past and romanticizing youth.

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In its first half, the film features quite a few fun cameos from unexpected comedians to keep things interesting. The pacing slows after the climax of the film. The final confrontation includes an amazing scene of physical comedy, but what follows doesn't have quite the payoff one would expect. Still, the movie ends on a satisfying, if smartly downbeat note.

Ultimately, Neighbors is a highly satisfying and hilarious revenge movie set in a frat house. We become invested in the character not because of the escalating gags, but because they are depicted with subtlety and nuance, which underscore the occasionally melancholy tone. All of the main actors are given comedic moment in which they can shine, and there are quite a few moments that made me gasp and/or laugh out loud.

Neighbors comes out on May 9, 2014.

Rating: 8/10 Stars

Tribeca Review: Intramural

Like Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story meets The Longest Yard.

Intramural is a sports comedy with an amazing cast of up-and-coming comedians that debuted at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. It is about Caleb, a fifth year senior afraid of the real world, graduation, and an impending marriage who reassembles his team of misfits for one last run of Intramural football.

Jake Lacy (The Office) stars as Caleb, the lovable underdog afraid of the real world. He plays mainly the straight character, so that the crazier characters can bounce off of him. Nikki Reed is great too as the love interest who has great chemistry with Caleb. Intramural also stars multipe SNL comedians, including Beck Bennet, Kate McKinnon, and Jay Pharoah, as well two out of three members of the internet comedy group BriTanNick, Brian McElhany and Nick Kocher. The standout here, however, is Bennet. He plays Dick, the leader of the rival Intramural team who antagonizes Caleb. Bennet infuses his character with an infectious energy, consistently over-the-top physicality, and he has lots of great one liners.

While it is very funny, the film's story is incredibly derivative of other movies. In particular, characters arcs, scenes, and the story beats play out exactly like the 2004 comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, just about football instead. The filmmakers are completely aware of this, however, and work in lots of self-referential humor, as well as spoofs of the cliche tropes of underdog sports movies. Still, the story just never feels completely original, coming off like a parody of films which are already parodying other films.

Some standout scenes in the film are a very meta montage, as the underdogs train to get into shape for the competition. While it's nothing original, the rapid fire verbal and physical humor makes this one of the funniest scenes of the film. There's also another montage later on in the film summarizing the Intramural season. Rather than going for humor, this sequence is visually stunning, set to some really cool music, and gets you pumped for the championship game. The early romantic scenes are also surprisingly effective, but in the second half of the film, that storyline is pushes to the side, never fully paying off.

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Some of the side characters are slightly one note, but each one is given a comedic moment to shine, and a unique trait which ultimately pays off. My biggest complaint is that the two stoner commentators played by Jay Pharaoh and D.C. Pierson are never given material that lives up to their comedic abilities. Most of the commentary scenes felt a little flat in my opinion, despite the two comics being so talented.

Director Andrew Disney packs in so many jokes that some are bound to fall flat, and so many comedians that some fail to stand out. However, what is clear is that everyone on screen had an amazing time making this film as a group of friends goofing around, which translates surprisingly well to the energy on screen.

Overall, Intramural is a hilarious, if not particularly original, film. It makes pretty good use of its large cast of up-and-coming comedians, and has plenty of fun scenes, in particular, the montages. 

Rating: 7/10 Stars