PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.: Paul Feig, 2011, Universal
Kristen Wiig is one funny lady, and Bridesmaids -- in which she is both star and co-writer -- is one funny movie.
But it's not as if Bridesmaids has a lot of competition. Male buddy-buddy comedies (or "bromances") -- movies like I Love You, Man or The Hangover or most of Bridesmaids producer Judd Apatow's other movies -- keep popping up all over the multiplexes and box-office charts, misbehaving wildly and scoring big, while female buddy-buddy comedies, which tend to be sappier and better behaved -- and less funny -- are fewer and rarer.
So, why has this latest diversion from producer Judd Apatow been greeted with such rousing approval? Well, probably because this is one woman-centered comedy that refuses to act ladylike, that keeps mixing it up, comedically, with the guys -- never backing away from a gross-out gag, a sex joke, a poop bit or bare breasts if they can get a laugh.
Like the better "guy" comedies, it's rude and smart and often foul-mouthed. But it also has that final vein of warmth and sensitivity that Apatow likes, the gentler touch that humanizes and justifies all the trash talk and toilet humor.
It's also liked a lot because of Wiig, who here plays Annie, a meltdown-prone maid of honor, designated as M.O.H. for the upcoming wedding of her longtime friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph, wonderful), alongside four sometimes frantically diverse bridesmaids -- played by Ellie Kemper (as demure introvert Becca), Wendi McLendon-Covey (as discontented housewife Rita), Rose Byrne (as "perfect" rich girl chum Helen) and -- playing feisty Megan, the gal with the baddest mouth in the place, and most of the best lines -- the transcendently hilarious Melissa McCarthy.
Byrne's nicey-nice, porcelain-pretty, well-connected Helen, is Annie's special nemesis: a woman for whom everything goes right, just as everything seems to go wrong for Annie. Worse, Helen is a bridesmaid who's now laying claim -- loudly, publicly -- to the bride's affections, proclaiming herself Lillian's "best friend."
Annie and Helen are natural combatants. Annie is a shaggy, slightly messy blonde; Helen has every hair and designer thread in place, plus a smile that would disarm a charging rhino. Annie has a tart tongue; pastries of all kinds would melt in Helen's mouth, while somehow mysteriously eluding her waistline. Annie's life is falling apart to such an extent that she has to move back in with her mom (played, in her last movie role, by the late Jill Clayburgh); Helen is not exactly filthy rich, because filth is something that never really enters her world. She's immaculately, spotlessly rich. And seemingly nice too.
The two dueling ladies first square off at a pre-wedding party, where they keep upstaging each other, in flamboyant onstage protestations of everlasting friendship. ("My friend!" "No, my friend!") It keeps getting worse, and funnier, right up the upbeat ending we secretly know will come, with songs courtesy of Wilson Phillips.
Caught in the middle, Maya Rudolph makes bride Lillian a seeming marvel of tolerance. We can understand why Annie is her best friend, see what the two shared together. We know why these two Milwaukee gals love each other, despite Annie's amazing capacity for foul-ups and self-destruction, and despite Lillian's seemingly straighter, more sensible make-up. And we know why someone like Helen can come between them, and why Annie, embittered, would hate her guts on sight.
This three-cornered havoc is beautifully played by the trio, especially Wiig. As she hops and lurches from one catastrophe to another, Annie gives new meaning to the words "her own worst enemy." There's an Annie-organized bridal diner that ends in mass diarrhea, a bachelor girl outing that climaxes in Annie drunkenly disrupting a whole plane ride. There's the wedding shower debacle, the pre-wedding no-show crisis.
If all that isn't enough, Annie also has man troubles. She haplessly plays erotic playmate to Jon Hamm's smirky would-be super-stud Ted, who calls her his "fuck-buddy" and his "Number Three." (Hamm and Wiig supply, at the beginning, some of the funniest intercourse scenes I've seen. Ever. Anywhere.) And Annie predictably messes up her own good fortune when a unfailingly sweet and wryly funny Irish cop (Chris O'Dowd) falls for her and tries to pull her out of her wreckage.
Finally, in what seems the coup de bleepin' grace, the maid of honor loses it completely at a super-rich Helen-organized party. Annie, convinced that Helen's present to Lillian (a trip to Paris) outshines hers (friendship mementos), erupts in a tantrum that ends in a wild attack on a huge (and apparently edible) man-size cookie on the patio, all before horrified, fascinated guests.
We're horrified, fascinated, and amused, too. Wiig, who makes Annie just dysfunctional enough to be scarily funny and just savvy enough to be believable movie romance material, plays Annie with a screwy smile, wary but inviting eyes, a flair for glib badinage and a herky-jerky mastery of comic mobility that hits its heights in that airplane fiasco and on one adorable Charlestonish dance she does on the white line as O'Dowd's nice guy cop tries to measure her possible drunkenness. After a tail-light violation. (Running gag.)
Am I spoiling some of these jokes? Nah, nothing could ruin them. The cast is too crackerjack, the human observation too clever and too compassionate.
Le Quattro Volte (A-)
Italy/Germany/Switzerland: Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010, Lorber
Movies, more than any other art form, can precisely show and beautifully render the appearance and feel and flow of reality: the look of the world, the way time passes, the way humans and animals and other life forms act on our planet. (And also, more distantly, the look of other planets or even stars). Few fictional films have done this more powerfully, more memorably, than Michelangelo Frammartino's Italian film Le Quattro Volte, or "The Four Times."
Frammartino's film, set in a tiny village in Italy's Calabria mountain country, is like some pure, austere culmination of Italy's great neo-realist film movement. Not a documentary, Le Quattro Volte manages to feel like one, to give us the illusion of unmediated or unaltered life. Not exactly a drama, it manages to carry us into the heart of all drama, life and death, and successively, into the souls not only of an old dying man who herds goats, but of a goat kid, of a majestic tree, and of the charcoal made from that tree's burned remnants. (Souls? Yes.)
The title refers to the philosopher Pythagoras, who once lived in this approximate area 2,500 years ago, and to his concept of the four stages of life: intellectual, animal, vegetable and mineral. Those four stages correspond also to the central subjects of each of Le Quattro Volte's four chapters: the old goatherd (intellectual), the goat kid (animal), the tree (vegetable) and the charcoal in the kiln (mineral).
Does a single soul pass among all these various forms? Maybe. More crucially, Frammartino invites us to view all life as important, as a worthy subject for his art and our closest attention.
This is a film you don't necessarily interpret but feel and absorb. In each section someone or something dies and is transformed. And though there are sure to be intolerant and dismissive viewers of Le Quattro Volte who say that "nothing happens" in this remarkable film, they are wrong.
What could be more momentous, more moving, more dramatic, than life and death? And transformation? (Transfiguration?) Frammartino's story is the tale of all the world and we who live on it -- and he tells it so beautifully, so lyrically, with such austerity and grace, that we are held rapt, spellbound by his images of life and death, of time and its stop. In Italian.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Captain America: The First Avenger (C)
U.S.: Joe Johnston, 2011, Paramount Studios
I don't mean to be a grouch, but Captain America -- stalwart crime and monster-buster of the new Marvel epic Captain America: The First Avenger -- struck me as one of the duller superheroes I've seen recently. That's despite one of the more amazing special effects onscreen transformations in quite a while -- from 90-pound weakling Army rejectee Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) to ultra-muscular Nazi-battling titan Captain America (Evans also). And it's also despite one of the niftier production design jobs to surround that superhero.
Why is Cap dull? Well, Evans plays him too straight, in the second part. The first is a little better. As the perfect candidate for one of those old Charles Atlas "before and after" muscle-building comic book ads, Evans is more appealing -- a persistent but consistent 4F flunker who can't get the Amy to sign him up to fight Hitler and fascism, which he desperately wants.
That Steve is concocted partly from technological magic: Evans' talking head has been CGI'd onto a tinier actor's body, and when Steve is scientifically morphed into the torso of Captain America, thanks to the scientific experiments of refugee scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), we're actually seeing Evans' real head on Evans' real body (which looks a little fake, maybe thanks to over-buffing for the role).
But, where the movie's skinny Steve is sympathetic because he yearns to be a hero (and has the right stuff inside), the movie's muscled-up Steve is a disappointment. He looks like an old Arrow Shirt ad, and he acts like one too. As David Edelstein notes, there's no sense of the inner delight that Steve might feel upon inhabiting this new body he always wanted and experiencing the heroism he always dreamed about. Instead, he acts as if he's always super-heroed it up like this.
I guess you could argue that it's a case of the body finally matching the man inside, but it seems weird that he's so blasé about it all. The second Steve has little sass or offbeat notes or depth, which allows the movie to be consistently stolen by the lovable scientist Abe (Tucci), the Nazier-than-Nazi villain Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), Red Skull's assistant Peter Lorre-ish maniac Dr. Zola (Toby Jones) and Captain A's droll, sour, constantly exasperated commanding officer, Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, who keeps throwing Don Rickles bombs at the hero and maybe at the movie). Or the splendiferous Hayley Atwell as romantic interest Peggy Carter, a hubba-hubba-hubba cutie who roots for either Steve and looks as if she'd just stepped out of a Milton Caniff comic panel. (Hugo Weaving, by the way, after he rips off his Johann Schmidt face and reveals the Red Skull face beneath, looks a bit like some weird cross between political guru James Carville and a steamed lobster.)
As for Captain American in his full costume, which dates apparently from his first 1941 Marvel appearance courtesy of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, well, he's your standard red, white and blue masked commando, with the usual Vibranium shield which seems as versatile a tool as a Swiss Army knife. ("A simpleton with a shield" and "an arrogant American" is Red Skull's contemptuous dismissal of his gaudily dressed foe.) And though Captain America doesn't look like an Arrow Shirt ad, or anything from Abercrombie and Fitch, he's a little dull too, even when he's jumping over fiery abysses, destroying secret underground war lairs, hopping on the roofs of speeding mountain trains, or battling and heaving out heavies while climbing aboard a super plane in mid air. (Captain America's or Steve's most exciting action scene is a chase through good old Brooklyn.)
Captain America has been treated kindly by most critics -- very kindly I thought -- so you may conclude that I'm just being an elitist snob carper nitpicker. After all, how can a movie be "dull" when, for our entertainment, people spend upwards of 140 million dollars to bring back World War II, find a new head villain, and nearly destroy the East Coast of America. What the hell do they have to do: bring on a black hole and destroy the universe? Please. Don't encourage them. (Extras: featurettes.)
Pre-Code Double Feature: The Song of Songs and This Is the Night (B)
U.S.: Rouben Mamoulian/Frank Tuttle, 1933/1932, TCM Vault Collection/Universal
Two movies from the heyday of Paramount, made before the Production Code got teeth. To the pre-Code crusaders, they looked dirty and corrupt; to us, they simply seem more adult about sex and more sophisticated about romance. More fun, too. (Extras: Ben Mankiewicz introductions to both movies; stills, lobby card and poster galleries; historical article.)
The Songs of Songs (B)
U.S.: Rouben Mamoulian, 1933
Marlene Dietrich, at Paramount's behest, broke away from her visually brilliant mentor Josef Von Sternberg in 1933, and she missed him. But she was lucky in her (temporary) replacement director, the visually flashy and urbanely theatrical Rouben Mamoulian, the maker of Applause, City Streets and the Fredric March Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and then almost as prestigious a helmer as von Sternberg.
In 1932, Mamoulian had directed a brilliant imitation Ernst Lubitsch pastiche, Love Me Tonight, and he did almost as well pastiching Sternberg in Song of Songs, which was adapted by writers Leo Birinski and Samuel Hoffenstein from a novel by Hermann Sudermann. It's suave but melodramatic stuff. Dietrich is the ravishing Lily, seduced by an amorous artist (Brian Aherne), who sculpts her and leaves her -- driving her into the eager arms of the local sophisticated and randy baron (Lionel Atwill, of course), who offers her money and marriage for love and fails with all of them.
The movie has that Paramount-Pre-Code sheen and perverse psychology that reached genius in Sternberg's hands and poked at it in here, in Mamoulian's, but Dietrich is stunningly beautiful even without her mentor. And the movie is pretty unfettered. Not only does Lily pose in the nude (for Aherne), and have sex (with multiple partners, in and out of wedlock), but she says rude things about morality and religion.
I find the ending of Song of Songs as silly as anything in the post-Code era, but the movie and Dietrich, are lookers. Mamoulian made this the same year he immortalized that other great '30s Hollywood European beauty and superstar, Greta Garbo in Queen Christina. And Dietrich found Von Sternberg again in The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935) no less.
This Is the Night (B-)
U.S.: Frank Tuttle, 1932
Imitation Lubitsch, this time not by Mamoulian but by musical and crime specialist (and McCarthy era name-namer) Frank Tuttle (Doctor Rhythm, This Gun for Hire). Fairly entertaining, but hard to swallow, it's a comedy about infidelity in which Groucho Marx's wayward blonde darling Thelma Todd cheats on her husband Cary Grant with that dashing rake Roland Young, better known as the Uriah Heep of the Selznick David Copperfield. (I told you it was hard to buy.) Young, with the aid of his fellow womanizing friend Charlie Ruggles (a Lubitsch stalwart), then tries to befuddle Grant further by engaging a phony charmer (Lili Damita) to masquerade as Young's wife on an excursion to Venice, where everybody (except Thelma, and, sadly, Groucho) acts very urbane and silly and chases Lili.
This Is the Night notches a major Hollywood landmark: the first screen appearance of Cary Grant. But how long would Cary's career have lasted if he had continued being cast as a foolish husband being cuckolded by Roland Young? Grant and Young did join forces soon again (along with Constance Bennett), as ghostly George (and Marian) Kirby and flustered Cosmo Topper in the 1937 Paramount minor comedy classic Topper.
But, in any case, it gives you pause to think of director Tuttle engaging in Communist subversion while making this movie, which feels, and looks, more like capitalist subversion, or at least Venetian subversion -- and could use a little (Groucho) Marxian subversion to goose it up. As for the engaging and sexy Lili Damita, she put her career into second gear when she married, a few years later, a Hollywood star who was no stranger to pre-Code violations -- Errol Flynn.