MALEFICENT: 4 STARS

"Let us tell you an old story anew," says "Maleficent's" narrator ((Janet McTeer), "and we'll see how well you know it."

The new Angelina Jolie film takes some liberties with a time-honored story, but doesn't stray too far from the necessary fairy tale elements. There is some grim stuff-treachery and de-winging-but there are also traditional themes about good and evil and the redemption of evil becoming good.  

This reimagining of Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" begins with Maleficent as the pure-hearted fairy protector of the enchanted Moors, "where no man goes for fear of the magical creatures who live within." When Stefan, a greedy, ambitious human whose betrayal turns her colder than the Polar Vortex, breaks her heart, she vows revenge.

Later, when Stefan (Sharlto Copley) becomes king Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) exacts her vengeance by cursing his baby daughter named Aurora (Elle Fanning with the words, "Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will fall into a sleep-like death!" To seal the deal, she adds, "This curse will last until the end of time. No power on earth can change it!"

For the next sixteen years Maleficent is a ghostly presence in Aurora's life. When they finally meet instead of fear, the young princess welcomes her. "I know who you are," she says innocently, "You're my Fairy-Godmother!"

The two hit it off, but to no avail. Maleficent's curse is irreversible and even though the evil-fairy-turned-surrogate-mother begins to feel protective of Aurora she is powerless to change her fate.   

Archly theatrical, "Maleficent" harkens back to everything from vintage Disney, to "Lord of the Rings" to the "Addams Family." It's a beautifully rendered film, visually rich, from the Moors' creatures that look like they escaped from Jim Henson's "Labyrinthe," to Maleficent soaring through the air, drifting above the clouds. A winged Angelina Jolie is a formidable force.

Like all good fairy tales it is simply told. It's a familiar story, with a twist, but unlike its spiritual cousins, the "Lord of the Rings" movies or "Snow White and the Huntsman," it clocks in way under two hours, moving at a deliberate but brisk pace.

The leads are wonderfully cast. Fanning conveys the sugar and spice and everything nice of the innocent princess, while Jolie is a striking screen presence. He extraordinary looks are made even more otherworldly with the addition of cheekbones that would make Kate Moss green with envy. Beyond the superficial, she brings to life the complexity of a fairy scorned; a kind-hearted, loving creature turned to stone but with a glimmer of good burning deep within.

"Maleficent" may be too intense for very young "Sleeping Beauty" fans, but is a fine addition to the Disney collection. 


A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST: 3 STARS

I was hoping to be more offended by "A Million Ways to Die in the West."

Each week on his show Family Guy, Seth McFarlane manages at least one joke that makes me cringe. It is as edgy a television show as there is on network television and many times I have muttered, "That's not right," under my breath even as I am laughing.

I expected McFarlane to push the envelope even further for the big screen as writer, director and star of the "Blazing Saddles-esque" "A Million Ways to Die in the West," and for sure there are some wild and crazy gags-some may literally make you gag-but it feels safe. Like Judd Apatow, not McFarlane.

Set in Arizona's wild west, McFarlane is Albert, a mild mannered sheep farmer who hates the frontier. "It's a disgusting dirty place," he says, "a cesspool of despair." The despair of his day-to-day life is compounded when his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him and takes up with a wealthy owner of a moustache grooming shop (Neil Patrick Harris). He finds love again with a mysterious stranger Anna (Charlize Theron), who helps him cope with dangerous frontier life and grow a backbone. His newfound courage is tested when Anna's husband, outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson) rides into town.

Despite the similarities to "Blazing Saddles," "A Million Ways to Die in the West" doesn't have the satiric subtext that made Mel Brooks' movie great. McFarlane takes stabs at racism and the social morays of 1880s-only he could create a prostitute character (Sarah Silverman) who loves her work but is saving herself for marriage-but here he comes off as Brooks Lite.

As the star he is funny by times, but his part is basically one joke. He's the fish-out-of-water who speaks like a twenty first century smart aleck. For instance, as people around him are killed in increasingly wild ways-hence the movie's title-he observes, "We should all just wear coffins for clothes." It's a good line, but his overall performance is more Bob Hope (with more than a hint of Peter Griffin in his voice) than John Wayne.  

"A Million Ways to Die In the West" relies on anachronisms and shock value jokes to raise a smile, and spends too much time on the love story. Brooks went for the jugular, and forty years on it's still funny and edgy. McFarlane's movie does have at least one classic moment that will appeal to Generation Xers and the most undignified duel ever, but it doesn't have much sardonic resonance.

 

THE GRAND SEDUCTION: 4 STARS

"We've been looking for a doctor eight years," says the mayor of Tickle Head, Newfoundland in the new Don McKellar comedy "The Grand Seduction."

"Well," replies Murray (Brendan Gleeson), with perfect logic, "let's stop looking and start finding."

And that's just what they do, using every underhanded and dirty trick in the book. These are decent people who try and do the right thing, but they also understand that sometimes you have to bend the rules to get what you want.

Tickle Head, "a small harbor with a big heart," has had more of its share of hardship since the bottom fell out of the fishery. Unemployment is high and the only jobs are "in town" in St. John's, a ferry ride away.

The town fathers have a bid on a petrochemical byproduct repurposing plant that makes… well, it doesn't matter, as they say in the film, it makes jobs. That's what's important. One key element is missing, a doctor. The factory deal won't go through unless there is a local doctor.

When Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), a city slicker plastic surgeon, lands in the harbour for a month long residency, the entire place (population 121) bands together to convince him to stay… by any means necessary.

Not everyone in town is on board. Kathleen (Liane Balaban) doesn't want an oil company to set up shop in her harbor and certainly doesn't want to be used as bait to attract the new doctor.

A remake of the French-Canadian hit "La Grande Seduction" is a comedy with a poignant edge. The set-up is outrageous-they spy on Dr. Lewis, tap his phone and even stage a tournament of cricket, his favorite game-but this is a story of a town fighting for survival of their town and their way of life.

There are plenty of laughs along the way-Gordon Pinsent is particularly effective as the deadpan Simon, who has never left Tickle Head-but the heart and soul of the film is in its fondness for the people and their harbour.