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Ix-nay on the ush-may: “Bridesmaids” has bite and heart

Kristen Wiig exercises her “civil rights” in “Bridesmaids.”

Socrates dubbed envy “the ulcer of the soul.” In that case, Annie (Kristen Wiig) is in for some serious, long-term indigestion. With her life in shambles, Annie can’t help but yearn for her oldest friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) good fortune: a steady job, a wealthy fiancée, Dougie (Tim Heidecker), a lavish wedding pending. That’s not the only reason Annie has to be envious: There’s the sleek, impeccably coiffed problem of Helen (Rose Byrne), queen bee wife of the Dougie’s boss who intends to muscle in on Annie’s maid of honor duties. She’s living proof that the politics of high school don’t stop after graduation.

What is so amazing about “Bridesmaids,” co-written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo, is the many ways the film explores the rivalries, disappointments and nuances of female friendship yet still manages to be wall-to-wall funny. Even in its most awkward and earnest moments, “Bridesmaids” uses laughter — albeit with a serrated edge — to offset the very real emotional turmoil of its heroine. The edge, the rawness make “Bridesmaids” more than a splendid, side-splitting answer to the likes of “The Hangover” or “Wedding Crashers”; they transform Wiig’s movie into a treatise on what it’s like to be a woman crashing headlong into adulthood.  “Bridesmaids” comes off as uncomfortable reality. It’s refreshing to see a comedy that understands, on a deep and often painful level, what it means to be a 30-something woman who doesn’t have everything under control.

Actually, Annie’s life — from the nonsensical rom-com perspective — is a mess. To the rest of us, it’s just … life. Wiig plays Annie as a woman who’s about as close to the bottom as she can get. Her Milwaukee bakery collapsed during the recession; her business partner/boyfriend ditched her; she shares a house with two intrusive British roommates (Matt Lucas, Rebel Wilson); and her sex-only arrangement with sleazy Ted (Jon Hamm) is decidedly unfulfilling. Wiig’s reaction to news of her best friend’s engagement says it all; her artificial smile and nervous giggle show she’s inches away from hysteria. Even more difficult than keeping her cool is wrangling all the bridesmaids, a queer bunch: Dougie’s sex-crazed sister Megan (Melissa McCarthy, sensational); the prim Becca (Ellie Kemper); Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), harried mom of three sons; and Helen, the 2011 version of Heather Chandler. From the start, the broke maid of honor’s plans go spectacularly wrong, starting with a ghastly food poisoning fiasco and ending with Annie, wasted on Scotch and benzos, getting kicked off a flight to Vegas (“there’s a Colonial woman on the wing of the plane!”). Annie’s fall from grace is epic, and Wiig spins humiliation into comedy gold.

Gross as it is, the now-infamous bridal shop fiasco, which runs a bit long, is not the best “Bridesmaids” has to offer. Wiig’s meltdown on plane is screamingly funny, as is her wedding shower toasting duel of one-upmanship with Helen. Later, Wiig truly outdoes herself trying to catch the attention of good-hearted Officer Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd), the would-be suitor she rejected. The sequence of Wiig driving past his cop car repeatedly, breaking different laws — going topless; texting; swigging a 40 of malt liquor — is a work of loony genius. Wiig’s go-for-broke approach sells this madness brilliantly. She also supplies an undercurrent of anguish that tempers but never dilutes the hilarity.

But “Bridesmaids” as a whole isn’t perfect. Annie’s bizarre roommates don’t serve much of a purpose, and the late Jill Clayburgh, who plays Annie’s mother, isn’t given much to do. Plus, with a running length of more than two hours, the film could benefit from much tighter editing, not to mention a less hurried third act. With grade-A material and acting like this, though, who cares? The butched-up McCarthy runs away with every scene she’s in (just wait for her “sex tape” bit during the credits). Byrne taps a core of loneliness in the vicious Helen, and O’Dowd (of “IT Crowd” fame) has an understated nice guy appeal. But it doesn’t get better than Wiig. Since her stellar cameo in “Knocked Up,” she’s blossomed into a fully formed actress. She could be just the one to give “chick flicks” the makeover they so desperately need.    

Grade: A-

Review: “Step Brothers” (2008)

There will be two distinct reactions to Adam McKay’s “Step Brothers”: the guffaws of people who think two 40-something men acting like prepubescent boys is hysterical and the horrified silence of those who think that’s painfully idiotic. Anyone who belongs to the latter camp should not see “Step Brothers,” which delights in juvenile humor — the juvenile-er, the better. This is a movie where a pre-teen bully opens a full can of whoop-ass on the 6’3″ Will Ferrell, then makes him eat a petrified dog turd.

If your heart leapt at “petrified dog turd,” read on, kindred spirit. “Step Brothers” is a smörgåsbord for fans of scatalogical/penis/fart humor, all-out absurdity, inventive one-liners like “Holy Santa Claus shit!” and wild pratfalls. That’s because of the magic that happens when Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly show up on the same set. There have been a few genuinely great comic duos in history, and Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are one of them. Apart, they’re certainly capable comedians, but together? Together they’re a lit stick of TNT. Bank on an explosion; just don’t think you can predict when it will happen or what the fallout will be. It’s that element of surprise that makes Reilly and Ferrell so very good together.

Toss some funny actors like Rob Riggle and Richard Jenkins into that mix, and that’s a recipe for one cookie sheet full of great comedy. Dale (Reilly), who lives with his widowed father Robert (Jenkins) and Brennan Huff (Ferrell), still crashing at his mother Nancy’s (Mary Steenburgen) house, are two adults living the carefree lives of 9-year-old boys. They are a pair of jobless freeloaders united, suddenly and unhappily, by their parents’ marriage. Forced to live in the same house (and, to maximize awkwardness, the same bedroom), Dale and Brennan strike up a hellacious and raucous rivalry. Dale calls Brennan and his mom “hillbillies”; Brennan threatens to fill a pillowcase with bars of soap and beat Dale senseless; and down it spirals from there. All the hatred comes to a head when Brennan tea-bags Dale’s prized drumset, culimating in a fierce brawl and the priceless moment where Steenburgen lets loose a string of F-words. Eventually Dale and Brennan form a fragile alliance, mostly in opposition of their parents’ insistence that they find jobs and move out. Ferrell and Reilly’s inventive job interview sabotage — wearing tuxedoes; farting loudly; arguing over the correct pronunciation of “Pam” with one interviewer — are some of the funniest in the movie.

Since “Step Brothers” follows a somewhat traditional romantic comedy (or bromance, more like) storyline, Dale and Brennan’s bond must be broken so they can be reunited. One of the dividing forces is Derek “I Haven’t Had a Carb Since 2004” Huff (Adam Scott), Brennan’s rich and insufferable brother. He’s determined to sell Robert and Nancy’s house so they can retire early, and he’s plainly delighted when Brennan and Dale turn on each other. (This is the kind of brother who’d interrupt your solo at the high school talent competition to announce that you have “a mangina,” then win it by lip-synching “Ice Ice Baby.”) Scott is but one of many side-splitting parts of this crackerjack ensemble cast. Riggle is another, stealing scenes left and right as Derek’s beserk right-hand “POW!” man Randy. Jenkins, a terrific character actor, gets to run amok of his usual sedate roles with physical comedy, and he has a fine time doing it. Kathryn Hahn is kooky and chuckle-worthy as Alice, Derek’s resentful wife who puts Dale squarely in the crosshairs of her lunacy. She wants to roll Dale in a little ball and shove him up her vagina. “No” means nothing to Alice; in another life, she was likely a rapist. 

In spite of all the hijinks, though, “Step Brothers” has an undercurrent of poignancy that might catch the observant off guard. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Dale and Brennan may be the poster children for arrested development, but their childlike refusal to give up on their crazy dreams is endearing. And let’s just say that it takes a special gift to make two grown men beating up a jeering kid bully seem like a triumph worth cheering for.

Grade: B+

“Something Borrowed”: Return to owner, and fast

Ginnifer Goodwin and Colin Egglesfield put a pretty face on wimpiness in "Something Borrowed."

Never, not once, has it failed: Every time I resolve to soften my heart to romantic comedies, to give this fluffy genre one more chance, a lemon like “Something Borrowed” comes down the line and reinforces the distaste anew. “Something Borrowed” is bland. It’s derivative. It’s wimpy. And Ginnifer Goodwin’s wig rivals Kate Bosworth’s “Superman Returns” rug in sheer obviousness.
 
Right from the start, though, the problem is not the wig, or even the plot (uninspired at best); it is the lack of sympathetic or halfway interesting characters. In all of the film’s running time, there emerges exactly one person worth rooting for, and he’s left hanging, written out solely to suit the purposes of the maddeningly unsatisfying conclusion. Here’s the setup: Sensible Rachel (Goodwin) and flighty Darcy (Kate Hudson) have been best friends since childhood. Their old pal Ethan (John Krasinski) has stuck close too, though he long ago wrote off Darcy as a selfish, high-maintenance shrew (yahtzee!). Darcy’s engagement to Dex (a “meh” Colin Egglesfield) presents a rather large problem for Rachel, who’s been in love with him since law school. Neither ever mustered to courage to make a move back then; naturally, now that the timing is lousy, they start a boring affair — boring because both Rachel and Dex are spineless. Rachel won’t force him to choose between her or Darcy, and Dex won’t call off the wedding because — here’s the cherry on the sundae — he thinks it is the only antidote to his mother’s depression. Right. That’s one for the books.
 
Three other characters get sucked into this stupid, pointless love triangle: the affable Ethan, Ethan’s oddball stalker Claire (Ashley Williams) and Marcus (Steve Howey), Dex’s loutish best friend. Claire, who wears rainbow-print dresses and has that Margot-Kidder-in-the-bush look about her, is almost too giddy and clueless to seem human. She’s a caricature. While Marcus is a caveman, at least he’s not a poser: he says what he thinks, even when what he thinks is really, really dumb and offensive. Ethan, thanks to Krasinki’s rumpled regular guy appeal and comic timing, emerges as a likable chap — perceptive, easygoing, funny. He advises Rachel to make Dex to show some backbone. But even Ethan proves himself to be something of a weenie: Instead of taking his own advice, he lies to Claire about being gay and runs away from her every chance he gets. Like all the other characters (except Marcus) in “Something Borrowed,” Ethan wallows and avoids; he can’t muster the gumption to go after what he wants or dismiss what he doesn’t. In actual life, that’s mildly annoying; in a romantic comedy, it’s totally insufferable.
 
Jennie Snyder’s meandering script and the lackluster acting make the absence of agreeable characters even less tolerable. Snyder seems determined to make sure the characters spend as much time floundering as possible. Whining and pining must be used sparingly to create romantic tension; Rachel and Dex flounder so long in “Something Borrowed” that by the conclusion we’ve all but lost interest. How can two people this indecisive possibly generate any heat, much less build a lasting relationship? Darcy and Rachel’s supposed “sisterhood” is just as baffling because Darcy is a self-serving flake, and Rachel is blind to her narcissism. Goodwin and Hudson don’t have much chemistry, either. (Note to Kate Hudson: Please stop taking these vapid parts.) Egglesfield isn’t given much of a role to work with, but he’s vanilla — a leading man in looks only. Howey gets some laughs with his neanderthal behavior, though he’s not given enough to do. Goodwin, who’s far too talented an actress to keep doing derivative drivel like this, tries hard and occasionally tugs at our hearts (barely).
 
It’s Krasinski whose wisecracks and amusing facial expressions brighten the film. Whatever part he takes, Krasinski can’t put a lid on his laidback charm and sincerity; it breaks up the dullness in “Something Borrowed.” And any film that makes the choice between the lively, funny, attractive guy and the model-hot but gutless one look like a hard choice is an insult to the audience’s intelligence. Worse, it’s a waste of time. 
 
Grade: D-

“Thor” a welcome addition to character-driven Marvel canon

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) learns the pain and value in being humbled in Kenneth Branagh's "Thor."

Natalie Portman was so astonished that Kenneth Branagh signed on to direct “Thor” she decided she had to be involved with the production. How many people, I wonder, saw the movie for that very same reason? Because let’s call a spade a spade and say that idea of a “serious actor” like Branagh directing a Marvel film is wacky and weird (or just weird). But in taking that unexpected leap, he’s joined other directors (Jon Favreau, Sam Raimi) who made Marvel adaptations about more than special effects and fight scenes. “Thor” takes a strutting peacock (Chris Hemsworth) and strips off his feathers to see what he’s really made of.

“Thor” doesn’t match the emotional depth of “Spider-Man 2” or possess the crackling wit of “Iron Man,” but the film has enough heart and dazzling visuals (a bit of advice: see them in 2D) to make it feel right at home alongside its Marvel predecessors. Branagh, just as fans might suspect, has more in mind for Thor than a blonde beefcake who wields a big hammer. While the director never skimps on the scenery (particularly the Bifröst Bridge, the stunning, resplendent gateway between Asgard and the other eight realms, including Earth), he makes sure Thor emerges from his trial a changed man. It’s the muscle-bound Hemsworth who makes the transition believable, even poignant. He may look like Australia’s answer to Fabio, but Hemsworth is not light on talent. He demonstrates a level of vulnerability that wouldn’t seem possible in a man with such meticulously sculpted abdominal muscles. 

Hemsworth, of course, is Thor — son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgar, and Queen Frigga (Rene Russo). Arrogant and short-tempered, he seems less suited to take the throne than his quieter adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Odin’s doubts about his eldest son’s leadership capability are confirmed when Thor ends a long-standing truce between Asgard and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, led by the malevolent Laufey (Colm Feore). Stripped of his hammer, Mjolnir, Thor is exiled to Earth, landing in the New Mexico desert and in the lives of scientist Jane (Portman), her bumbling assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and fellow researcher Erik (Stellan Skarsgård). With his bizarre manners and formal speech, Thor seems like a certifiable kook; however, Jane wonders if he knows something about the interdimensional wormholes she’s researching. When Thor tries to reclaim Mjolnir, he catches the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, droll as ever). Back in Asgar, Thor’s band of Warriors Three — Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) — and longtime friend Sif (Jaime Alexander) begin to suspect that Loki isn’t as harmless as he appears. 

As origin stories go, Thor’s fall from grace is more interesting than most purely because of the costumes (kudos to costume designer Alexandra Byrne) and stellar design and effects. “Thor” rivals “TRON: Legacy” in terms of scenes that inspire awe and wonder — it’s marked by a terrific use of fluorescent colors and lighting that render Asgar the kind of mythical kingdom told of in Norse mythology books. The sinister Frost Giants and Heimdall (Idris Elba, for once correctly cast), the gruff gatekeeper of Bifröst Bridge, are striking as well. There’s something emblematic about the image of Heimdall, with his piercing yellow eyes, horned helmet and formidable staff, presiding over a bridge that connects the worlds. Heimdall, even more than Odin, seems possessed of a calm certainty in his purpose that Thor is unable or unwilling to seek out.

Herein lies the rub, where Branagh aligns “Thor” with other comics-based movies that don’t skimp on development. That extends to secondary characters. Portman gets to step away from her tortured “Black Swan” persona, and Skarsgård brings his trademark low-key humor (though it’s Dennings and Hemsworth’s stranger-in-a-strange-land antics that provide most of the comic relief). Hiddleston is subtle but effective as the diabolical and tortured Loki, chameleon-like in his ability to assess his circumstances and change accordingly. His devolution makes him a fitting foil for Hemsworth. Hiddleston is the stronger actor; Hemsworth, though, provides more perceptiveness than he has to. He lets us see the flaws behind the beauty.

Grade: B+

No. 45: “Sideways” (2005)

“Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
~~Miles Raymond

Alcoholism has many faces in film — Tommy Basilio (“Trees Lounge”), Dixon Steele (“In a Lonely Place”), Joe Clay (“Days of Wine and Roses”), George and Martha “(“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), to name a few. Alexander Payne’s sharp, touching “Sideways” makes a strong case for adding failed novelist Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) to that list. He can stagger along with these boozers; actually, he could put them to shame with his frightful pretentiousness. He’s too busy appraising wines as “quaffable but far from transcendent” to consider that he’s tasting his liver to an early grave.

“Sideways” has a bit of fun at the expense of self-appointed sommeliers like Miles. On paper, he is unappealing: aloof, condescending, persnickety to the nth degree. Miles steals cash from his mother’s underwear drawer. He is that dinner party guest who will march right out the door — hurling insults all the way — if he spies one bottle of merlot in the wine rack. Giamatti has played such men before, so he knows how to suggest the painful vulnerability underneath all the snobbishness. The humanity sneaks out in the little moments, like Miles’ drunk phone call to his ex-wife (Jessica Hecht), or his sadly beautiful speech about Pinot (really a veiled description of his own neuroses and nuances). It becomes more evident, too, the more time he spends with his slick, womanizing old college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church). The duo jaunts out to Santa Barbara County wine country for Jack’s bachelor party weekend, which Miles tolerates mostly because there will be wine, and lots of it. Otherwise, these two would have nothing to hold their friendship together but a few years of communal showers and keggers. It’s an Oscar-and-Felix partnership that’s long past its expiration date. But Church and Giamatti are a formidable comedic duo.

Jack’s libido is the cause of many of the hijinks in “Sideways,” most involving slapstick, plenty of enthusiastic sex and nudity. Out to sew his wild oats while the sewing’s good, Jack ends up romancing Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works at a local winery. That leaves Miles to play the part of the wingman. He doesn’t grumble about that because he’s been quietly in love with Maya (Virginia Madsen), Stephanie’s friend, for years. Giamatti communicates this wonderfully in several scenes, particularly one late night when Maya drives Miles home. As she watches the road, the normally timid Miles gives himself permission to look at her, really look at her. Giamatti’s face and eyes are so revealing that dialogue is superfluous. Rare is the actor who can say everything with a lingering look. Bogart accomplished this feat in “Key Largo”; here, Giamatti matches him. This kind of talent doesn’t come along every day.

“Sideways,” based on Rex Pickett’s novel, might well be a full-blown character study if not for the comedy the Church/Giamatti pairing provides. Their differences are never more obvious, or hilarious, than when Miles tries to teach Jack the art of wine tasting. Jack’s more of a fill-my-glass-to-the-top kind of taster with no nose for subtleties. He’s an actor who’s accustomed to instant gratification, so when he decides he wants to ditch his gorgeous, rich fiancée (Alysia Reiner) and live with Stephanie, he can’t understand why Miles thinks it’s a bonehead move. “Sideways” is jam-packed with those kinds of stupid choices, the funniest being Jack’s dalliance with a waitress that sends him running naked back to the hotel when her husband gets home. Church has a grand ole’ time playing the vapid pretty boy (Church is a good enough actor that he bends our sympathy to Jack) to Giamatti’s oversensitive, smug overthinker. The Giamatti/Madsen pairing fairs even better, with Madsen hitting a career high as the intuitive Maya. Her careful response to Miles’ speech on the merits of Pinot marks one of the film’s most honest moments. For all the comedy, this is what we take away from “Sideways”: that there are people out there willing to coax us to our fullest expression. And when we meet then, we’d better hold on tight.

Review: “Saved!” (2004)

American Eagle Christian School — could there be a more perfect name for the central location of a sharp-toothed satire about the highly sanctimonious? Doubtful. Somehow name-dropping an ace seller of artfully preppy attire signals the ride director Brian Dannelly intends to take us on. For “Saved!” is full of people (adults included) who devote themselves full-time to crafting perfect-looking Christian lives. Queen bee Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), in fact, could make praising Jesus while insulting someone’s outfit an Olympic sport. She’s a mean girl wearing a cross pin.

The thing that keeps “Saved!” from seeming wholly hateful and mean-spirited is the abundance of unfake people. The film’s heroine, the aptly named Mary (the supremely talented Jena Malone), possesses none of Hilary Faye’s venom. She’s simply a Christian girl enjoying her walk with God and her life. She has a considerate boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust); a hip-but-still-parental mom (Mary-Louise Parker); and a group of what she believes are kind-hearted friends (Moore, Elizabeth Thai). Then, during an innocent pool-side game of telling secrets, Dean lowers the boom: He’s gay. Mary bolts out of the water, knocking herself unconscious on the pool ladder, and has a vision of Jesus (actually the burly pool guy who saves her from drowning). She is to help Dean become ungay, and she knows only one way: sex. This leads to Mary staring down the barrel of a definitively positive pregnancy test. It’s a life interruption she didn’t account for, and it shakes her faith.

Although teen pregnancy is involved, “Saved!” does not head into Lifetime Movie Network territory. Considering it’s a film that revolves around teens, “Saved!” is unexpectedly witty, good-hearted and intricate. Writers Dannelly and Michael Urban do not pander; nor do they proselytize, either, despite the obvious parallels between Mary and the Virgin Mary. The writers are more interested into navigating the murky, perilous waters of high school life, which looks the same at every high school. The outsiders, not surprisingly, are the most interesting characters. Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the only Jew — called “a Jewish” — at American Eagle, is a foul-mouthed, hard-living smoker, but she also has a good heart. She accepts people as they are. Hilary Faye’s brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin, delightfully sardonic), confined to a wheelchair, hovers on the outskirts as well. New kid Patrick (Patrick Fugit), son of terminally clueless principal Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), is low-key about his faith, and he admires Mary for having the guts to question hers openly. These students, not Hilary Faye and her minions, are the ones who rally for Mary; they offer her support and kindness she doesn’t ask for but desperately needs. They also see through Hilary Faye’s phony piety to her bitter soul, and they help Mary see it, too.

As teen satires go, “Saved!” is not exactly “Heathers” or “Clueless,” but it doesn’t retract its fangs. Dannelly and Urban aren’t afraid to venture into potential blasphemy to drive home their points. For devout Christians, the most controversial scene, no doubt, is Mary’s showdown with the giant cross on a church building. Faced with an uncertain future, she curses at the cross, daring God to react. There is blasphemy in this scene, but that’s what makes it so powerful. It is a poignant depiction of one woman’s crisis of faith, her need for some kind of solution to the mess she’s gotten herself into. Both her anger and her demand for answers are near-universal. And certainly Malone’s performance lends immense depth to “Saved!” — not shocking considering Malone is a major talent. She is never melodramatic or whiny; she finds the right tone.

So do Parker and Donovan, invaluable character actors playing uncertain lovers. Amurri, an actress with crackerjack comedic timing, and Culkin serve up plenty of great one-liners, but there’s an edge of earnesty to both characters. Moore proves she can be nasty (“I am filled with Christ’s love!” she screams at Mary, hurling a Bible at her back) and take shots at her squeaky-clean image. For all the good-natured ribbing, though, it’s through Hilary Faye that we get the clearest message: The people who yell the loudest have darkness to hide.  

Grade: A-

Review: “Monster” (2003)

“I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.”
~~Aileen Wuornos

Aileen Wuornos never had a chance. All the arguments of creating fate and making good choices in the midst of bad situations wither in the face of Wuornos’ awful circumstances. Her life started out bad and got worse. Born to a 15-year-old mother and a child molester father, she was raised by abusive, alcoholic grandparents. Her grandfather beat her regularly; she got pregnant at 13; she and her brother were farmed out to foster care; she was kicked out of the house she was 15. She became a prostitute to support herself. Prostitution made her feel trapped and angry, and it taught her to hate.

Patty Jenkins’ morally complex “Monster” sticks with this line of thinking about Wuornos, the female serial killer who murdered seven men in Florida from 1989-90. Before her Death Row execution in 2002, Wuornos changed her story so many times — the johns raped her and she shot them in self-defense; she killed because she wanted to — it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. So Jenkins elects to paint a decidedly sympathetic portrait of a serial killer that predates Showtime’s series “Dexter.” Charlize Theron, camouflaged in dumpy clothes and transformed by make-up, goes along with this view. In a truly outstanding performance, she gives humanity to the woman painted as a monster and falsely christened the “first female serial killer.” Theron, in fact, is so good that we never think to sneer at the actress for going ugly to win an Oscar. Purely on the strength of her acting she earns all the praise. She also rewards the leap of faith required to believe an actress so comely could become a woman so homely and beaten-down. Theron is a revelation.

It’s safer to call “Monster” a movie inspired by true events than a biopic, since Wuornos’ history is so malleable. She changed her stories with such frequency that even she couldn’t keep them straight. Jenkins provides a bit of back story but zeroes in primarily on Aileen’s romantic relationship with Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), reminiscent of the real Wuornos’ partnership with Tyria Moore. Down to her last $5, Aileen strikes a deal with God: She’ll spend the cash and then commit suicide. At a gay bar, she meets young Selby, who’s eager for companionship. Despite a rocky beginning, the two form a fragile friendship that turns into a tentative, then fiercely codependent romance. Selby wants Aileen to whisk her away from her judgmental aunt (Annie Corley) and into a life of freedom. But that sort of life takes money, and Aileen has to hook to get it. After one john (Vincent Corey) beats, rapes and tortures Aileen, she manages to untie her hands and shoot him. The murder is cathartic; she howls in pain and anger, the screams of a wounded animal. The incident unhinges her, unleashes the rage and bitterness she’s swallowed since childhood. And so the transformation from prey to predator begins. She kills more johns, including an undercover cop (Marco St. John) and a kind man (Scott Wilson) who only wants to help her. But by that final murder, Aileen is beyond kindness, help. She can’t go back.

Nearly all of the characters in “Monster” are secondary to Theron and Ricci, who perfectly capture the nuances of a dangerously unstable relationship. Bruce Dern has a small role as Aileen’s only friend, Thomas, a Vietnam vet who understands her alienation. Ricci does a fine job with a role that demands she play a naïve, needy teen who willfully blinds herself to Aileen’s reality. Mostly “Monster” is a showcase for Theron’s gifts as a serious actress willing to go far outside herself for a part. Aileen Wuornos is about as far from Theron as it’s possible to get, yet Theron’s performance wholly fascinates and absorbs us. Rather than seeming like a pretty girl in ugly clothes, she embodies Aileen completely. Theron gives Aileen the voice she never felt she had, and she makes us feel the abject hopelessness and desperation of Aileen’s life. Through Theron, we understand how the simple act of living in such a miserable reality can bankrupt the soul.

Grade: A-

“Your Highness” marks new low for David Gordon Green

Portman, McBride, Franco and Deschanel marvel at just how bad "Your Highness" really is.

It’s a simple question not of weight ratios, but of the law of averages. After a string of successes, director David Gordon Green was due for a miss. “Your Highness,” Danny McBride and Ben Best’s surprisingly unoriginal and unfunny attempt at a medieval spoof, is certainly a miss. In fact, considering that Green directed the wonderful indie gem “All the Real Girls” and the hysterical pot comedy “Pineapple Express,” this film is a Trojan Rabbit of a miss. A miss so large that an African swallow and a European swallow working in tandem could not carry it. Not even Ahchoo’s Air Jordans could help Gordon run away from it.

These “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” allusions are unfair. No film has topped “Holy Grail” in its madcap send-up of medieval culture. And McBride and Best do not try to model “Your Highness” after this comedy classic, so comparison is unwanted. But I don’t care. Given the creativity of Best and McBride’s “The Foot Fist Way” and McBride’s genius line delivery, there’s no excuse for this kind of aimlessness. Even aimlessness could be excused if “Your Highness” had a little satire or more than, say, three scenes that induced more than a polite chuckle. But the film is curiously stale, flat, unfunny and uninspired — a lethal combination. A greater crime than any of these is the general listlessness of the performances. Only Natalie Portman, as a fierce, vengeance-obsessed female warrior, and Justin Theroux, as an articulate sorcerer with outrageous hair, register a pulse. Franco’s acting is on par with his recent performance (or non-performance) at the Academy Awards. McBride, who made magic (and a lot of roaches) with Franco and Seth Rogen in “Pineapple Express,” couldn’t look more disinterested. He sleepwalks through the entire movie, which is cause for concern. If the prospect of making out with Natalie Portman dressed as Xena: Warrior Princess can’t put some pep in a guy’s step, he’s beyond help. Or dead.

The plot of “Your Highness,” however, is not totally beyond help, though it isn’t particularly earth-shattering. McBride and Franco play Thadeous and Fabious, respectively, the very different sons of King Tallious (Charles Dance). It’s a dichotomy as old as time: Little brother Thadeous is a scoundrel and a layabout, while Fabious is a handsome, dashing warrior beloved by all. During his latest quest, Fabious rescued a winsome virgin named Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel, who, as usual, appears really, really bored) that he plans to marry and promptly deflower. But malevolent sorcerer Leezar (Theroux) has plans for a grand “fuckening” of his own and kidnaps Belladonna, forcing Thadeous, his effeminate squire (oh! a girly squire! how original!) Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) and Fabious on a hasty quest to rescue Belladonna. Along the way, they encounter Isabel (Portman), a tough-talking fighter out to kill Leezar for murdering her family. Portman is intense enough that she seems somewhat out of place in “Your Highness,” though every zany romp — even bad ones — needs a good straight man. It helps if the straight man has dainty cleavage.

There’s also a smattering of sorta-amusing secondary characters, like Julie (Toby Jones), a devious little person hiding absolutely nothing in his trousers, and Boremount (Damian Lewis), Fabious’ right-hand man who is furious that he’s been replaced by the cowardly Thadeous. (It would not be considered a spoiler to reveal that Boremount is, like, so gay for Fabious, because who didn’t see that coming? Anyone?) Not to be outdone is Timotay Dungeon Master (Tobias Winter), who presides over a Roman-esque legion of forest warriors and commands an atrociously rendered CGI dragon creature — all while sporting a Flock of Seagulls ‘do and an adult diaper. He’s bizarre enough to draw a few laughs, but most of the film’s genuine humor belongs to Theroux. He milks his role as Leezar for all it’s worth, spouting off lines like “magic, motherfucker” and leering impressively. Without Theroux, aside from the odd sight gag (take note of Thadeous’ unorthodox quest trophy), there wouldn’t be many reasons to laugh in “Your Highness.” If anything, when we consider “Your Highness” as a waste of Gordon Green’s talent, suicidal depression is far more likely.

Grade: D

Review: “Jesus Camp” (2006)

No matter what a viewer’s faith may be, there’s something unsettling about the image of 5- and 6-year-old children weeping, repenting for their sins and collapsing to the ground. Sure, this is a generalization; after all, the evangelical Christians appearing in the documentary “Jesus Camp” view such a scene as a triumph. Still, the concept of a children’s minister berating elementary schoolers for being sinners and “phony Christians” has to disturb somebody. Yet “Jesus Camp,” directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, does not take the stance that this approach to child rearing is child abuse. The directors allow their subjects — including evangelical minister Becky Fischer, evangelical families home-schooling their children and Mike Papantonio, a liberal Christian radio host — to guide the film. And the results, though sometimes ill-edited and uncertain, are never less than completely thought-provoking. 

“Jesus Camp” offers several viewpoints on the evangelical Christian movement in America. Those who oppose these believers, like Papantonio, who views them as militant and angry, are given a voice too. The documentary’s primary focus is Fischer and her ministry, which often feels more like indoctrination than teaching God’s word. Fischer runs a popular summer camp for evangelical children in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. This is not the average summer camp. There is no arts-and-crafts hour where kids make crosses from nails and twine or friendship bracelets; Fischer’s camp is more like basic training for the soul. Her campers spend their days crying and speaking in tongues, giving testimonies about how they want God to cleanse them of sin. Fischer rails against the evils of Harry Potter (“In Old Testament times, he would have been put to death!” she shouts). She also urges her youngsters to crusade against abortion; a guest speaker even brings in models of tiny fetuses. In the strangest scene, Fischer has the campers lay hands on a cardboard cutout of George Bush — whom Fischer credits with singlehandedly reuniting church and state — and pray over him. The suggestion of idol worship is frightening.

Interspersed with these riveting camp scenes are interviews with evangelical children and parents and clips from Papantonio’s radio show. Particular attention is paid to Levi, a Missouri youth who claims he got saved at age 5 because he “just wanted more of life,” and Rachel, who spends part of an outing to the bowling alley obeying God’s command that she approach a stranger and talk to her about God’s love. Levi appears curious and comfortable with his faith, while Rachel is twitchy and nervous. Most alarming is the look in her eyes; despite her youth, her eyes look overburdened, with a tinge of mania. She could be the poster child for Papantonio’s worries about the evangelical movement and what it means for children raised to be warriors in the battle against Satan and for American government (mixing religion and government is dangerous in his view). Fischer and Papantonio’s portions of the film intersect during a radio interview, when she makes no bones about supporting religious indoctrination of children. She wants to get to kids while they’re young because their minds and morals are moldable. They can be “used in Christianity,” she says. She doesn’t mean this to sound sinister or strange; it’s simply her truth.

The same does not appear to be true for Ted Haggard, who appears in the final 1/3 when the campers take a trip to his church in Colorado Springs. (After the film was released, he resigned due to a sex/drug scandal involving a male escort.) Haggard’s asides to the camera are wholly insincere and, well, sinister. There’s no other word to describe the man: he is creepy. Even as Haggard talks with Levi, who clearly idolizes the pastor, his words reverberate with fakeness. Haggard’s portion of the documentary is a counterpoint to Fischer’s scenes. While she is a genuine believer, someone who practices what she preaches, Haggard oozes insincerity. Somewhere in the middle is Papantonio, reminding listeners that Christ was not a solider but a peaceful man. In presenting all sides of this growing movement, Ewing and Grady succeed in creating a film (albeit an imperfect one) that does not cower in the face of some complex and tough issues.

Grade: A-

Review: “Roger Dodger” (2002)

People who think they have any part of life — money, sex, parenthood — figured out are twice as clueless as the rest of us. Which means that Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott) is in for a ruder awakening than the average smug bastard because he’s so self-assured that he takes on a pupil: his nerdy teen nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) as a pupil. Roger will spread his delusion to the next generation. This is the sort of familiar movie predicament that has two possible outcomes: Student absorbs the lesson and surpasses the teacher, or teacher learns something unexpected from the student.

The breezy pace and bitterly funny, vivid dialogue, though, prevent Dylan Kidd’s “Roger Dodger” from seeming that stale and predictable. The film also has Scott, an actor not usually given particularly substantial roles. Given the strength of his brutally frank, acerbic performance here, it’s hard to explain why he’s not better known — or, at the very least, a shoe-in to play more characters like Roger Swanson. Scott is every millimeter the caustic cynic, a Manhattan copywriter with a somewhat sadistic approach to his career. “You can’t sell a product without first making people feel bad,” he contends, insisting “it’s a substitution game.” This is how he approaches his love life, too. But Roger’s bravado backfires when his lover Joyce (Isabella Rossellini) — who’s also his boss — dumps him. Roger can’t quite accept that his tactics could be flawed, can’t quite accept that he’s hoodwinked himself, so he crashes a work function and confronts Joyce. Her rebuff is as succinct as it is chilly. When Roger’s 16-year-old nephew shows up at his office unannounced, Roger sees a prime opportunity to channel (misdirect, really) his frustration and exact an odd sort of revenge. Nick, a virgin of the never-been-kissed ilk, proves to be the perfect blank canvas: thoroughly naïve and eager. He’s perfectly happy to let Roger take him on a tour of Manhattan’s bars, which, after 3 a.m., all start to look the same.

Bar-hopping and one short-lived jaunt to a strip club ultimately amount to the sum total of “action” in “Roger Dodger.” But the lack of action is no problem because action merely would detract from Kidd’s script, which crackles with stinging one-liners and prickly, fast-paced banter. (The script on its own would make for quite a lively read.) “Roger Dodger” is one of those uncommon films where the flow of words — because Roger never stops talking, nor do we want him to — is enough to keep the atmosphere lively and the momentum speedy. Pay close attention to Scott’s terrific opening monologue, a comic and telling introduction to a man whose speeches are so entertaining his listeners don’t see the catastrophe he’s leading them to. Roger is the modern (and male) equivalent of a siren, using his words to enchant and then destroy. Bitter humor is a requirement for the part, but Scott brings something more to it. He locates a core of rage and pain that Roger’s protecting, which makes him seem less villainous even though he’s clearly manipulating (not to mention misleading) the well-intentioned Nick. (Interesting tidbit: Eisenberg essentially reprised this role for 2009’s “Solitary Man.”) Eisenberg has a gift for seeming as raw and impressionable as a high schooler — despite the fact that he was nearly 20 during filming.

For a male-centric film, “Roger Dodger” also has a trio of strong female performances, with two of them coming out of nowhere (“Flashdance” and “Showgirls” ring any bells?). Rossellini, as a strong-willed, matter-of-fact careerwoman, is the stressor that pushes Roger over the edge, and she more than matches Scott’s cynicism. She cannot be snared in his webs of words. Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley register as more than disposable playthings as Sophie and Andrea, who tag along on Roger and Nick’s escapades because they find Nick’s sincerity likable. In a way, he takes them back to the days of sweetly nervous first kisses, not sleazy pickup lines and grabby hands in ill-lit bars. They want to preserve that innocence and sense — there’s that female intuition Roger can’t pin down — Roger’s out to destroy it. The magic of “Roger Dodger,” though, is that even Roger can’t be pegged that easily.

Grade: A