Three movies: ‘Belle,’ ‘Maleficent’ and ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Here are my reviews of three movies that are out in theaters right now — “Belle;” “Maleficent” and “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”

“Belle,” which was “inspired” by a true story, is a richly gorgeous film. “Maleficent” is impressive, and any movie with Angelina Jolie has natural star power. “A Million Ways to Die in the West” shows that Seth MacFarlane really loves Westerns.

Please read below for the more thorough reviews:

BELLE

Though one of its main themes is racialism (as it was then known) in 18th-century England, the beauty of “Belle” is far more than skin deep.

Based on a true story — or, as they say these days, “inspired” by a true story — “Belle” concerns one Dido Elizabeth Belle (exquisitely played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Though she is the half-black daughter of a Royal Navy Captain and a West Indian slave, Belle is raised by her great-uncle and his wife (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) as if she were their own.

It is a life of great privilege and wealth — though, as it turns out, Belle is a rich woman in her own right, having been named her father’s heir.

Her beautiful cousin and best friend (Sarah Gadon) is not so lucky. Though she’s blessed with the porcelain beauty of a classic English rose, she has no fortune and therefore must marry well.  Or be doomed to the half-life of a spinster. There are no other choices.

That doesn’t mean Belle’s life is easy-sailing (no reference to her father intended). For example: She’s welcome to dine with the family unless they have guests who may not be as open-minded. In which case she is to eat on her own. She is not good enough to eat with her relatives, but too “good” to eat with the servants.

The film is as richly gorgeous as any given Merchant-Ivory piece and these, days, that’s a rare and wondrous thing, with most movie money going to special effects, not silks and satins.

However, in “Belle’s” case, think of a Merchant-Ivory picture as written by Maya Angelou and Gloria Steinem. Elegant and intelligent, as well as blessed with an enchanting protagonist, “Belle” is the stuff Oscar dreams are made of. Perhaps, in the case of newcomer Mbatha-Raw and veteran Wilkinson, those dreams may yet come true.

MALEFICENT

Not magnificent, but pretty impressive. If only because Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning kicked the collected X-Men’s butt right out of first place at the box-office. What did Cate Blanchett say at the Oscars about women not being a niche audience?

“Maleficent” turns the familiar tale of Sleeping Beauty inside out, telling us there’s more to the Evil Fairy than a nasty curse. We’re given a back-story, which, though it’s pretty predictable, nonetheless shifts our sympathies.  She has a lot more to be angry about than not getting an invitation to Princess Aurora’s christening.

Jolie’s charisma has always been even more powerful than her considerable cheekbones (and they are even more considerable here). She strides through the movie as if she owns, not only it, but the theater and the audience as well.

This is what star power looks like and, while the ending may have lost a little of its punch thanks to “Frozen,” a new twist is always welcome. Especially in centuries-old fairy tales that break women down to princesses or Dragon Ladies.

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

There must be 50 million ways to leave this movie. Or so I thought.  Seth MacFarlane is the worst Oscar host in history and his smash-hit “Ted” is one of the worst smash-hits in history (Oh boy! A foul-mouthed teddy bear! Why didn’t A.A. Milne think of that?)

However, his Western comedy/parody reveals something unexpected about MacFarlane (who wrote, directed and stars). This guy truly loves Westerns. Or he loves something about the West.  Not only is the movie actually more loving than the World’s Most Famous Western spoof, ‘Blazing Saddles,” (I don’t think Mel Brooks loved Westerns), but McFarlane loves himself as an actor in the Old West.  Look at all the times we get to see him riding hell-for-leather across some lone prairie.

The plot is a pastiche of every Western cliché you can think of — from gunslingers (Liam Neeson) to heart-of-gold hookers (Sarah Silverman) to spunky Western chicks (Charlize Theron, gorgeous in what looks like the entire Sundance clothing catalogue) to barn dances, rattlesnakes and mustachioed dandies (Neil Patrick Harris).

The picture goes on about 20 minutes too long and I’m not sure how effective MacFarlane is as our sheepherding-coward-turned-Man-of-the-West. He’s part Bob Hope, part Woody Allen.

Still, the movie has more respect and affection for the Old West (and old western movies) than I imagined it could.  The Oscar stint and “Ted” remain unforgiven, but I’m willing to look at whatever MacFarlane does next.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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