Wednesday, 1 July 2015

THE GOON SHOW GUIDE: An Introduction


It's been a little while since I've had a weekly feature on this blog, following the final instalment of Furuba Fridays back in April last year. As I mentioned in August, I've had to abandon or strip back a lot of the features I used to do on this blog in order to concentrate on both my job and my ongoing journalistic training. But now I feel the moment is right to do another regular feature, at least for a little while - and that brings us to The Goon Show Guide.
I've made no secret in the past that I am a huge fan of The Goon Show. Having been vaguely familiar with the show during my teenage years, I became a compulsive fan from my first year as a student. My Mumbling On co-host Thomas Wales introduced me to a lot of the episodes and characters which are now my favourites, and there is an awful lot of The Goons in The Yesterday Show and particularly its sequel, The Adventures of Battenberg and Schnepps. My subsequent friendship with Peter Byrom further expanded my interest, leading me to accumulate all the episodes I could find.
I've already declared my love for the series in various posts on this blog, from my Blog Spot on fansite to this Letter of Note about Peter Sellers urging Spike Milligan to revive the show in 1980. But I think the time is right for me to go into a bit more detail about the series, going through some of my favourite episodes in detail and recommending the few bad apples that you should avoid.
That's what I intend to do with The Goon Show Guide. Every Wednesday evening I'll be going through a set of episodes, usually a series a week, and summarising each episode in turn. Even though the episodes are the same length (or thereabouts) as the Fruits Basket Radio Drama I covered before, there's simply too many of them to do one a week: you would quickly get bored and I would quickly run out of things to say. I'll also indicate where you can purchase the shows for yourselves, share interesting stories about the making of the series, and point out where the shows may have directly influenced the comedians who came after them.
I'll be beginning next week with a brief run-down of the main characters and a bit more background to give you an idea of what to expect. Until then, why not head over to and download The Spon Plague for free, to give yourself an idea of what you're in for over the next few weeks...


NEXT WEEK: Meet the Main Characters

Monday, 29 June 2015

BLOCKBUSTER: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (2010)


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (UK/ USA, 2010)
Directed by David Yates
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter

It's very easy to hold a grudge against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows purely on the grounds of the industrial precedent it created. The financial success of splitting the last and biggest of the books into two instalments led to the same tactic being employed with Twilight and The Hunger Games, regardless of whether their respective source materials actually merited such an approach. For fans and casual viewers alike, the move smacked of wanting to milk as much as possible out of the last drops of a given franchise.
In the case of HP7a (as Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo christened it), we find the franchise finally starting to cut to the chase, beginning the build-up towards the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. Having drawn things out for so long, putting off this inevitable showdown, there is almost a rush to get in everything that is left to be said. Under these circumstances, splitting the book into two films is almost the most logical thing to do, and while not all of it works, it does have a lot of attractive qualities.
The feeling that a lot is being crammed into this final act brings us back to our ongoing comparison with The Lord of the Rings. Many film fans had quibbles with the ending(s) of The Return of the King, and fans of the book were in two minds about some of the omissions, particularly the scourging of the Shire and the death of Saruman (in the theatrical cut). But even taking those as gospel truth - for the moment - Peter Jackson did quite an excellent job of balancing and converging all the different aspects of Middle Earth in the climatic battles - a much better job, in fact, than he managed recently on the third and final Hobbit film.
By contrast, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 has a lot of plot for us to swallow, making it simultanously one of the most satisfying and one of the most impenetrable instalments in the series. If you spent the previous two films crying out for a plot which directly focussed on the return of Voldemort and what his victory could mean for the wider world, you will find yourself openly rejoicing at the fact that this is finally being addressed. Equally, the series is so far gone and insular by this point, that if you happen to find yourself watching this by accident on late-night TV, chances are that you won't have the faintest idea what is going on.
The film is helped somewhat in this regard by the horcruxes, a plot device which I covered in detail in my previous Harry Potter review. All of my criticisms of this McGuffin aside, the hunt for the horcruxes gives the film structure and a definite end-point towards which we are heading. Like The Two Towers, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 ends before said end-point has been reached, but like Jackson's film there is (to some extent) a feeling of catharsis and expectation of what is to come. That being said, the death of Dobby, like Dumbledore's in the previous film, still feels like an arbitrary event, included purely because it happened in the book. For all his dramatic credentials, David Yates still hasn't grasped how to build up tension so that a death can carry meaning: it's not so much a 'shock death' as a nothing-death.
By focussing on the search for the horcruxes, and taking the action away from Hogwarts, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 moves the series into more candidly existential territory. Our three main characters are at their most isolated and strained since Goblet of Fire, faced with a quest which is seemingly impossible, and having to cope without either the wisdom or protection of their teachers. Kermode's comparisons with Ingmar Bergman may seem far-fetched at first glance, but there is a point behind them: there are fewer creature comforts here than in previous efforts, and like Bergman's films there is little credence given to sentimentality.
The aesthetic of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 reflects this desire for all the stability and comfort in Harry's world to be diminished. Eduardo Serra, who won a BAFTA for his work on Wings of a Dove, shoots the action in a more pathos-ridden manner, emphasising the stillness of the woods, the intimidating dark colours and the increasingly pallid landscapes. Yates employs more hand-held work for the chase sequences through the woods, but is also judicious in his choice of wide shots to reinforce the smallness of the characters. There are times in Alexandre Desplat's soundtrack when the world around the characters seems to creak and wail, akin to Alan Splet's extraordinary work on David Lynch's Eraserhead.
Two sequences in the film reinforce the feeling of gathering gloom and descending darkness better than any other. The first is the animated rendering of the Tale of the Three Brothers, whose stick-like characterisations are somewhere between Classical depictions of soldiers and the caricatures of Gerald Scarfe. The animation on its own is beautifully designed and well-told, but the sequence gives the eponymous hallows more status than they would have had if introduced through just another swathe of exposition. The tale has a Chaucerian quality to it, with Death's characterisation being as subtle and cunning as his namesake in 'The Pardoner's Tale' within The Canterbury Tales.
The second, equally potent sequence is the trio's infiltration of the Ministry of Magic. I mentioned in my review of Order of the Phoenix about the Ministry's design being rooted in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. What was then a mere inflection is now made flesh, with Yates borrowing heavily yet grippingly from the Michael Radford adaptation, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. The low-angle shots of the banners and wanted posters, not to mention the robotic movements of the Ministry's employees, reinforce the feeling of freedom and justice being crushed in the name of purity and homogeny. Imelda Staunton's return as Dolores Umbridge only hammers this home, taking her inevitable place as the puppet of a state governed by fear, and projecting her own self-loathing onto those she deems inferior.
In the end, however, the centrepiece of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is the relationship between our central trio, something which is anchored us throughout the ups and downs of the entire series. Like Goblet of Fire, seeing the central three at each others' throats is completely believable, but now that the stakes are raised their every tiff or raised voice could spell disaster. Rupert Grint does especially well in conveying the frustration of his character, whether it's listening to the radio to see whether his family has been killed, or his reaction to the nightmarish visions which burst forth from the locket.
The only problem with the approach that Yates adopts is that the character-driven scenes begin to feel repetitive very quickly. It's not quite the case that you could show these sequences in any order you please, but the fact that Ron comes back so relatively quickly negates a lot of the emotional impact of his departure. Equally, there's little to suggest that the order in which the horcruxes are destroyed is the only order in which they could have been tackled; in this film at least, there's no progression from one to the other in terms of their potency or difficulty.
Another big problem with which the film is lumbered is the need to tie up a lot of the supporting storylines, often by simply killing people off. Rowling described the action of the final book as a war, and in war unpredictable deaths are to be expected. But that doesn't mean that characters and creatures to which we have dedicated several years of our lives can just be swept aside as collatoral damage. If you thought that Ginny and Harry's kiss in Half-Blood Prince came out of nowhere, a lot of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 will feel completely jarring and inert. Once again, Yates can't deliver the knock-out blow when it matters most, working so hard on a general tone that the particular moments carry no weight.
It's not just the death of Dobby which falls into this category; the entire Battle of the Seven Potters is a classic example of this approach. The special effects needed to create seven Daniel Radcliffes are all well and good, but the battle's choreography is choppy and disorientating; it doesn't communicate the chaos of the battle, it just leaves you wondering why they bothered in the first place. The deaths of multiple characters are treated in a lackadaisical, matter-of-fact manner, whether we see them on screen (Hedwig) or are simply told about them (Mad-Eye Moody). To top it off, Voldemort's appearance in the scene is a complete waste of time: he doesn't come across as threatening, he does nothing of significance, and he's so easily defeated.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is an intriguing, atmospheric and bleak offering which serves up a lot of good points in amongst its all-too-common drawbacks. It is perhaps the strongest of the Harry Potter films since Goblet of Fire, and unlike many of the films in the series it may well improve with repeat viewings. But while its visuals and main characters are impressive, it's ultimately hobbled or reined in by meaningless deaths and dull repetition. For fans, it's an impressive and ambitious sequel; for cynics, it's a reassurance that, very soon, this will all be over.


NEXT REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (2011)

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

BLOCKBUSTER: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (UK/ USA, 2009)
Directed by David Yates
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Jim Broadbent

When I reviewed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I described the film as "the beginning of... the long, slow consolidation of the franchise." After four films of varying quality under three different directors, the series found a workmanlike happy medium under David Yates, who delivered a film which had promise and interesting ideas but struggled to get through all the plot. 
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince continues the transition of the series into a holding pattern which is both problematic and reasonably entertaining. Yates' direction is marginally improved, and the film benefits greatly from the brilliant performance by Jim Broadbent. But many of the issues which plagued its predecessor are still on show, namely the episodic plotting and the feeling of deliberately and needlessly delaying the inevitable.
People have written a lot about the gradual darkening of the Harry Potter series, in both the books and the films. When the sixth book was published, some critics worried that the stories were getting too "grown-up" for people in their early teens who might not have matured with the series. Yates and his collaborators have clearly sought to convey a sense of gathering dread, ramping up the blues and blacks in the colour scheme and with more night scenes than in the previous instalment. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is mainly known for his work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet; having lensed Amelie, at the brighter, more whimsical end of magic, here he broadens his CV to deliver darkness on screen which is at times almost suffocating.
While the darkness may be welcome on a general level, there is a problem with how Half-Blood Prince applies its desire to be dark and bleak. Underneath all the technical jiggery-pokery, there has to be some form of narrative pay-off, a dramatic climax or the stakes being gradually raised which will make the darkness seem palatable. Shooting everyone in shadow or making them wear dark clothes will get you so far, but in order to truly accept that the world is getting darker, there has to be a moment where the evil or obstruction becomes fully realised. In short, we need a strong indication of the storm into which we are heading - or at the very least, confirmation that there is a storm in the first place.
It is entirely possible to make a film which ends on a sense of open-ended dread, in which the manifestation of evil is implied or otherwise takes place off-screen. Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, which came out in the same year as this, did a brilliant job of hinting towards the carnage of World War I through unexplained and horrifying events which were difficult to fathom. Half-Blood Prince, on the other hand, feels like a false cliffhanger, in which we are left frustrated that we have to keep waiting for the inevitable showdown between Harry and Voldemort, which could and should have happened long ago.
Much of the fans' disquiet about Half-Blood Prince surrounds the death of Dumbledore - referred to euphemistically as "the unhappy event" by Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode during their film reviews on BBC Radio 5Live. In the book, Harry is physically unable to stop Snape from killing Dumbledore; in the film, he simply stands there in shock, waiting under the stairs where Snape told him to remain in silence. Like so many details in the Potter series, this is a moment which should have enormous gravitas, but in Yates' hands it feels more arbitrary even without the changes in Harry's response.
This is extremely surprising given the intensity of Harry's previous scenes with Dumbledore. In an interview with Daniel Radcliffe after the series had ended, J. K. Rowling described Dumbledore's relationship with Harry as "John the Baptist to Harry's Christ"; his great deeds and "voice crying in the wilderness" prepare the way for the greater, deeper work of the one who comes after. Dumbledore is increasingly aware in the later films of his own frailties, shortcomings and mistakes, and the search for the horcruxes epitomises his desire to put things right. For all my criticisms surrounding Dumbledore's predictable role within the plots of the earlier films, his relationship with Harry has become one of the films' most consistently redemptive qualities.
One of the highlights of the film is the scene in the cave, where Dumbledore is forced to drink a painful potion to unveil a locket believed to be a horcrux (more on that concept later). Much of the plaudits have focussed on the technical aspects of the scene, such as the rendering of the zombie-like inferi or Dumbledore's fiery apparition. But what is truly memorable is the anguish on both men's faces as they endure horrific pain to complete the task. The pain of the characters is genuine and gives weight to what otherwise could come across as a meaningless McGuffin to pad out the plot (again, more on that later).
The real emotional heart of the film, however, is Professor Slughorn. Whether through Rowling's characterisation, Steve Kloves' scripting, Yates' direction or a combination of all three, this character manages to be both particularly human and immensely complex in the ideas he represents. Slughorn's reluctance to give up his memory of the young Tom Riddle works so much better than the vague conspiracy of denial dwelt on in Order of the Phoenix. By focussing the dilemma onto one person, it becomes more palatable for an audience and ironically its impact appears greater, at least in relation to a man's conscience.
Slughorn represents all the guilt, shame and regret that surrounds the wizarding profession with respect to Voldemort. He's a well-meaning but not entirely likeable person, whose nervous and eccentric manner belies a tendency to exhibit favouritism to his students and selfishness with regard to his own soul. Broadbent perfectly conveys the idea of a man haunted by knowledge, mindful that what he knows will help but terrified of the contents of said knowledge. If Dumbledore is John the Baptist, then Slughorn combines the misjudged treachery of Judas with the doomed foresight of Cassandra in the Greek Myths.
Broadbent's enigmatic and melancholy performance causes a significant development in Harry's characterisation which would be touched on in the last two films - namely his relationship with power and how he handles temptation. By working from the Half-Blood Prince's book and outdoing his classmates (including Hermione), he feels for the first time like he has the skill and talent to live up to his image as 'the chosen one'. Throughout the film he is torn between his mission for Dumbledore (to recover Slughorn's memory of Riddle) and his growing hubris and curiosity which stem from the new spells he perfects.
As before, then, the saving grace of Half-Blood Prince is its cast, with each of the three principals growing further into their characters and Tom Felton continuing to develop all that is snivelling and repulsive about Draco Malfoy. But the film still has its fair share of structural problems which encumber it, beyond its inability to have a meaningful ending. Not only is Dumbledore's death reduced to a mere incident, but the film never explains its title. As a result Snape's final words to Harry feel like they were crowbarred in to justify calling the film by such a name; for all the peeks into Snape's history that we've enjoyed, we've no idea why he should be called that or what it means in the wider context of the plot.
The film also has issues with accommodating some of the magical concepts. The atmosphere Yates creates on screen is definitely more magical and mysterious than Chris Columbus managed in the first two films. But mood alone cannot be used to justify concepts like the Room of Requirement and the Vanishing Cabinet. Like the previous film, the idea is badly derivative and jars with the general attempt within Rowling's world for everything to have a logical basis; you cannot create dramatic tension if you can just magic something out of thin air when you need it.
Then we come to the horcruxes, which serve as the driving McGuffin for The Deathly Hallows. Even taking on board everything I have said about Dumbledore and Harry's relationship, there are two big problems with this concept. Firstly, the idea is not particularly original, with both Sauron's ring in The Lord of the Rings and the puzzle box from Hellraiser being prior examples. And secondly, there is a simple plot hole to consider; if Dumbledore knew that Riddle's diary was a horcrux, why has he waited so long to search for the others? By introducing the concept so late, rather than, for instance, hunting one horcrux per film, it feels like a last-minute, back-of-a-beer-mat resolution to the story, with everything that has gone before serving to buy Rowling some time.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is an enjoyable and atmospheric offering whose performances cover up its narrative and structural shortcomings. While the cast are largely excellent and the dark tone is welcome compared to the earlier offerings, it isn't put together with sufficient skill or ingenuity to deliver enough of a knock-out punch. At the three-quarter mark in this franchise, it's a middling but entertaining effort, and certainly enough to whet our appetites for both parts of The Deathly Hallows.


For more on darkness in film and how to get it wrong, check out my review of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom here. For a more cross-media analysis, check out Hope 'JesuOtaku' Chapman's review of Madoka Magica here.

NEXT REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (2010)

Saturday, 20 June 2015

RIP Ron Moody


Modern media, it seems, can only handle one high-profile death at a time. Last week's news about the passing of Ron Moody - who died on June 11 aged 91 - was overshadowed by the death of Sir Christopher Lee around the same time.
Such an incident is not without precedent: John F. Kennedy's death on November 22, 1963 dominated the news coverage to such an extent that very few people seemed to mark the passing of C. S. Lewis or Aldous Huxley on the very same day. There is, in fact, a fascinating book called Between Heaven and Hell by Peter Kreeft, which imagines these three men having lengthy conversations in purgatory. In any case, the tributes to Lee - wholly justified as they are - should not blind us to Moody's talents as an actor.
While it's fair to say that Moody's career never scaled the height of Lee's, there was a great deal more to him than Fagin. His connections to the classics run deeper, with his take on Uriah Heap from David Copperfield being a close rival to Nicholas Lyndhurst's more recent interpretation. He leant his voice to The Animals of Farthing Wood, often considered the Watership Down of the 1990s with its strong storytelling and dark tone.
Moody also dabbled in cult cinema, turning in an all-too brief parody of Henry Kissinger in The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It. Directed by Joseph McGrath of The Magic Christian, it's a ramshackle but occassionally inspired Sherlock Holmes spoof which deserves a wider audience. Most compellingly, he turned down the chance to become Doctor Who once Patrick Troughton left the series in 1969; the role subsequently went to John Pertwee, who played the part for five years. Moody deeply regretted this decision, though he did eventually play the Duke of Wellington in one of Big Finish's Doctor Who productions, Other Lives.
Any of the items I've listed are a fitting way to pay tribute to Moody's memory. If you do decide to plump for Oliver! - and who would blame you? - you might be interest in either my WhatCulture! article on Charles Dickens, or my review of David Lean's Oliver Twist. However you choose to mark his memory, Moody is a great loss to his profession and remains a standard to which character actors should aspire. RIP.


P. S. Nash Bozard of Radio Dead Air discusses Moody's relationship with Doctor Who in his Doctor Who Classic review of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, which you can watch here.

Monday, 15 June 2015

RIP Christopher Lee


Thursday turned out to be a bit of a downer, with the news that Sir Christopher Lee had passed away in hospital of heart failure aged 93. Numerous figures in the acting world have already taken time to pay tribute to a man who was a titan of cinema, and now it falls to me to feebly attempt the same.
New Line Cinema
It doesn't seem all that long ago that I was evaluating Lee's career for WhatCulture!, having written an article on his highs and lows back in December 2013. Truly there is no proper way to summarise Lee's career without overlooking so many of the unusual, weird or just plain bizarre routes he travelled between Hammer and Saruman. Even in compiling my list, I had to leave out so many great performances: Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, Compte de Rochefort in The Three Musketeers, Nicholas in The Devil Rides Out - the list goes on and on.
the wicker man
What my list also failed to convey was some of the interesting aspects of Lee's life away from the silver screen. He was the only member of The Lord of the Rings cast to have personally met J. R. R. Tolkien, and read the novel once a year every year from their publication in the 1950s. He was a step-cousin of James Bond creator Ian Fleming and a distant relative of American Civil War general Robert E. Lee. While serving in the RAF during World War II, he almost died at the Battle of Monte Cassino when he tripped over a live bomb. And he was involved in the British secret service, bringing his knowledge to his most iconic parts - like his death scene in The Return of the King:
Lee was quite simply a biographer's dream, and for film fans he remains an icon, whether of old-school British horror or Tim Burton's later works. If you want to pay tribute to him, I would recommend any of the films I cited in my WhatCulture! article; Dracula and The Lord of the Rings are the obvious choices, but there is also never a bad time to watch The Wicker Man. If you're feeling very adventurous, you could even track down his performance in the title role in Jinnah, which Lee considered his finest performance of all. However you choose to remember him, he will be sorely missed. RIP

P. S. I'm aware that Ron Moody's death was also announced on Thursday. I hope to do a separate piece devoted to his week later this week - watch this space.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

COMEDY: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)


A Million Ways to Die in the West (USA, 2014)
Directed by Seth Macfarlane
Starring Seth Macfarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson

Seth Macfarlane has rapidly become of the most divisive comedians of the modern era. The continuing, often baffling success of Family Guy and American Dad! have made him as successful as the creators of The Simpsons, earning him millions of fans and an equal number of critics, both professional and public. For some, he is a witty, ingenious writer and performer with a gift for puncturing egos; for others, he is nasty, derivative, mean-spirited and crass, whose work lacks the narrative coherency of his betters.
Wherever you stand on Macfarlane's televisual endeavours, translating from one medium to another is notoriously difficult. It's very tempting to treat any film project as merely an excuse to get in more of the same material, or to allow the jokes to run on for longer than a 20-minute episode would usually permit. Just as was with Ted, so it is with Macfarlane's second film, A Million Ways to Die in the West (hereafter A Million Ways). While not without brief moments of coherence or spark, the film is largely unfunny, unfocussed, and squanders all the best ideas for the cheapest gag on which it can lay its hands.
A good way of illustrating the central problem with this film is to be found in Dwarfing USA, a DVD documentary about the ill-fated American version of Red Dwarf. Doug Naylor, who co-created the original series, recalled being in a room of writers from The Simpsons and Cheers, and being berated for wanting to work on character construction rather than coming up with gags. Naylor said to the writers present: "It doesn't matter how many one-liners you think of, it's not going to solve the problem. It's just Bandaid over the cancer."
The point of this comparison is that Macfarlane has clearly gone to town thinking of as many throwaway gags with a Western aspect as he can. You can imagine him sitting in a writers' meeting for hours, writing down every funny thing that occurred to him and ticking them off a huge list as he tried to fit them all in. But no matter how many jokes he can produce, or how long he chooses to play these jokes out for, they cannot solve the underlying problems: the story and the characters.
The great comedy westerns of old, like Blazing Saddles, soared because their stories and characters worked on their own merits without them having to constantly try and be funny. Underneath all the buffoonery and fart jokes, there was a believable relationship between Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder, who were part of a story with genuine tension, stakes and even pathos. Mel Brooks understood that comedy is often borne out of human misery, and used even its silliest moments to poke fun at Western stereotypes.
In A Million Ways, Macfarlane has set his sights far lower than Brooks did even at his low point in the 1990s. While both filmmakers brought modern dialogue to an historic setting, Macfarlane doesn't do anything constructive with this conceit. Like a lot of American comedians, Macfarlane treats the film as an excuse to play a version of himself in which his ability to wisecrack trumps all other ideas or plot considerations. He's playing at being a cowboy, making up the plot as he sees fit, rather than creating believable cowboy characters who just happen to talk like 1970s Jewish comedians.
The central idea of A Million Ways isn't exactly a bad one. Many modern westerns go for a gritty and earthy approach, eschewing the nostalgia of John Ford and John Wayne, but very few dramatic westerns dwell on the fine points of sudden, horrible death by anything other than a gun. There is definitely potential in making a film about the Wild West as a place where people can die suddenly without good reason or means of moral justification - a sort of 19th-century Leviathan, but with jokes.
Even if Macfarlane's ambitions didn't extend to a full-on reworking of Thomas Hobbes, he could have taken this central idea further. He could have used Charlize Theron's character to directly challenge the gender stereotypying of westerns; there hasn't been a cowboy film with a viable female lead for many years. Equally, he could have taken Liam Neeson's ruthless, lugubrious villain and subverted the concept, making him a complete coward or someone who is misunderstood. He could have done any number of things - but as usual he settles for the cheap gag and the fast buck over anything involving either thought or genuine creativity.
Most of the biggest gags in A Million Ways - in other words, the ones that made the trailer - are lowest common denominator fare designed to get a quick shock and a shameful laugh. There's nothing inherently wrong with jokes about poo, vomiting, farting or sexual intercourse, but you have to package them in a certain way to stop the comedy becoming about shock value for shock value's sake. John Waters knew this, Mel Brooks knew this, even the Farrelly Brothers knew this - but clearly it's something that Macfarlane still has to learn.
There is no better example of this than the all-too lengthy scene involving Neil Patrick Harris getting the runs during the gunfight. The initial idea has some comedic promise - someone can't attend a gunfight because he can't stop going to the toilet. In the hands of a director who understood that suggestion is often more effective than being explicit, the joke could have worked reasonably well. But Macfarlane shows us far too much, repeating the same joke over and over without progressing the scene, and then giving us the totally unnecessarily close-up of the hat full of faeces. He deconstructs his own joke while he's telling it, insulting our intelligence and bringing the pace of the scene to a grinding halt.
The same goes for the so-called climax, where Albert outwits Clinch in the final duel. Had Macfarlane put in the hard yards, showing the growing ingenuity and self-respect of Albert, this development would have made much more sense and felt cathartic. As it is, it looks and feels for all the world like the writer plucked the resolution out of his arsw, shoehorned the plot around it and then explained it to death, killing the joke in the process. Tom Baker got away with this in some of the weaker episodes of Doctor Who because he was charismatic and appealing enough to make us believe that the Doctor was really that clever. But Albert isn't clever: he's as stupid as his creator believes his audience to be.
In hindsight, it was a very bad idea to allow Macfarlane to direct, produce, write and star in this film. Whether because his energies are too thinly spread or because he has no real talent at all, he comes up short in every aspect. His central performance is flat and weak, with no real character development and a cocky, chauvinistic quality which makes him unappealing. His writing is mediocre, always low-balling it when a person in his position should be taking risks. His direction is to westerns what Chris Columbus was to Harry Potter, with the camera remaining so static that we can tell when a joke is being set up just by looking at a given shot for more than a second. And by producing it, alongside good friends Scott Stuber and Jason Clark, there is no-one to rein him in when he starts being narratively flatulent as well as comedically so.
If we disregard the jokes for the moment - difficult as that may be - we find ourselves coming back to the issue with the characters. The central dynamic is simply a lazy and boring regurgitation of the Judd Apatow formula - namely a romance in which a schlubby, incompetent, shallow and cretinous guy ends up with the beautiful, smart, resourceful woman for no good reason. Taken abstractly, there is no way in hell that Anna would end up with Albert, and shaping him as the lesser of two evils over Clinch is not only stupid, it's downright misogynistic.
In spite of all this, it would be wrong to describe A Million Ways as an abject failure. There are so many gags being thrown at you that some are bound to stick in a disposable way, and for newcomers to the comedy western sub-genre, there are worse places in which one could start (Wagons East, for example). It is equally possible to enjoy it for the supporting cast, who work overtime to do their best in spite of the material. While Neeson is largely boring, pitching it somewhere between Taken and Seraphim Falls, Theron is a lot more appealing and almost manages to make her role convincing in its own right.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is a disappointingly scattershot affair which will entertain Macfarlane fans but leave the rest of us with half-remembered frustration. Its central premise and its cast both have undoubted potential, but every good idea it has is quickly ground down into third-rate physical or scatalogical jokes which are poorly directed, have no staying power, and are offensive for all the wrong reasons. Macfarlane can do so much better as both an actor and a writer, but the biggest compliment you can pay this film is that it makes you want to rewatch Blazing Saddles, to see how it really should be done.


NEXT REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)