Friday, May 13, 2011

'Bridesmaids,' one of the best comedies in years

Bridesmaids, the newest release from comedy juggernaut Apatow Productions, has been alternately described and marketed as The Hangover with girls, a chick flick guys can enjoy and a long-awaited raunchy comedy for women. It might be all of these things, but the reason Bridesmaids is a great comedy isn’t its ties to comic conventions, but its confidence to be itself.

Annie (Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote the screenplay with fellow Groundling Annie Mumolo) is falling behind in life. Her dream cake business went under, she lives with a pair of annoying (but hilarious) roommates, she works in a jewelry store where she can’t seem to stop dropping reality bombs on happy couples, and she’s under a mountain of debt. When her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) gets engaged, Annie sees it as an opportunity to celebrate something good in her life, but when she meets Lillian’s pushy, super-rich new friend Helen (Rose Byrne), planning the perfect bride experience for her best friend becomes a power struggle.

As Helen steadily gains influence over Lillian, Annie searches for a way to overcome, looking to fellow bridesmaids Megan (Melissa McCarthy), Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and Becca (Ellie Kemper) for help, spending more time with her caricature painting mother (the late Jill Clayburgh) and befriending a good-natured Irish highway patrolman (Chris O’Dowd).

What starts as an unambiguous rivalry comedy pitting Annie against Helen evolves into a kind of soul search picture that feels neither pretentious nor posed. Annie becomes less concerned about overcoming her fellow bridesmaid and more concerned about what’s happening to her and how she can fix it. It’s a welcome dose of true heart to a genre of films often missing an emotional core.

It’s a challenge to present such a touch-feely concept in a comedy setting anyway, but Bridesmaids makes it work. Director Paul Feig (a veteran of TV shows like The Office and Freaks and Geeks, both of which walk a similar line) masterfully balances relentless, often raunchy jokes with moments of genuine humanity. This comedy could have been all about an over-produced wedding or a bachelorette party gone horribly wrong. The fact that it isn’t, but it still manages to be funnier and better than any movie of that kind made in the last decade, makes it all the more charming.

It seems to be a universal truth that Kristen Wiig is funny, but Bridesmaids proves she’s a star. She carries the film, both as actress and writer, and manages to maintain a glowingly beautiful sense of being both a real woman and a really funny woman throughout, even in her character’s moments of absolute despair. Her supporting cast is each equally wonderful in their way, and made even more wonderful by their diversity. The stand-out, though, is McCarthy, who steals every scene she’s in (which won’t surprise any viewers of Gilmore Girls, where she regularly upstaged Lauren Graham).

All these ingredients (well, these and a cameo by a certain 80s pop group that will go unnamed for fear or spoiling it for you) add up to a comedy that’s rare in a world of mass-produced raunch. Unlike so many of the comedy films that have rolled out of the Hollywood machine in the past decade (many of them quite good in their own right), Bridesmaids takes the high road. It manages to pack in a truckload of dirty jokes and various and sundry gags - all of them well-placed and most of them gut-bustingly funny - while still giving a sense that it’s populated with real people, real problems and real love. It manages to fit perfectly into the comedy scene while standing distinctly outside of it in a new, maybe better, category. Bridesmaids is a rare gem, a comedy that made all the right moves and kept its heart in the right place.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'Thor,' an epic in two worlds

Hemsworth only wishes he were working on the railroad.

Thor, the herald to sound the coming of 2011’s summer movie season, is the kind of shamelessly overblown epic that you should have shameless fun watching. It’s a flick that walks a line between science fiction and fantasy, between hero’s journey and God’s burden, and manages to maintain the best of both worlds.

It’s a fitting way to tell the story, because Thor is also set in two worlds. The journey begins as the titular hero (Chris Hemsworth) is exiled from the realm of Asgard (where the Norse Gods reign) by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor foolishly and cockily dealt with the malicious Frost Giants, and his action led to war. He pays the price by being stripped of his godly powers, including his legendary hammer Mjolnir, and cast down into the desert of New Mexico, where his frustration grows as he begins the search for his hammer and way back to the realm of gods.

By chance, foxy stargazer Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her two assistant (Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) happen to be looking up at the sky when Thor falls to Earth. As they get to know him, and his ambition to reclaim what’s his, Jane begins to feel that there might be something else to the universe.

What begins as a kind of comedy of manners as Thor adjust to life in the human world soon becomes a struggle to reclaim not only his powers, but his realm, as Thor begins to learn there’s much more to being a leader than strength. It sound like an overly big, overly corny concept for a blockbuster to tackle, and in a way it is, but Thor and its bombastic, superhero backdrop is the perfect venue to watch a hero rise.

Director Kenneth Branagh, known more for his work with Shakespeare than superheroes, erases almost any doubt that he’s a capable of a big action adventure flick. He has an over-reliance on crooked camera angles to keep things visually interesting, but other than that he keeps every sequence tight, brisk and brimming with visual wonder (but not the kind of visual wonder that merits extra money for 3D; remember that). He also knows exactly how to turn an arrogant, hammer wielding god into a hero among men, and even when the film’s blockbuster sense of humor might get in the way, Branagh (with the help of a story by Thor comics writer J. Michael Straczynski and a screenplay by Ashley Mill, Zack Stentz and Don Payne) never loses the epic threads that run through this story.

Even with Branagh’s measured direction, Thor could have been the kind of film the degenerated into farce were it not for a strong cast to hold it up. Portman and Hemsworth aren’t exactly electric in their chemistry, but they, along with Dennings and Skarsgard, manage to juggle the flick’s many and often rapid-fire jokes with a sense of the gravity of what’s going on around them. Adding to the excellence are Hopkins and English actor Tom Hiddleston, who is a wonderfully cool but still slippery version of Thor’s trickster brother Loki. Thor could be the kind of movie that’s nothing but wise cracks, or it could be the kind of movie that’s filled with melodramatic angst. Thankfully, it’s a movie that contains both wise cracks and melodramatic angst, and another cast might not have made it work.

Thor is not a masterpiece, or a deeply moving piece of fantasy cinema, or an acclaimed attempt to humanize a hero. It’s a big, bold, thrill ride with plenty of laughs, explosions and danger, and it’s all the more admirable because it never pretends to be anything else. It’s a welcome addition to the Marvel Comics cinematic canon, made all the more welcome by a carefully placed titled at the end of the credits: “Thor will return in The Avengers.”