'Bridesmaids' marries fun acting, writing

Recall that women, coerced or not, accompanied their guy friends — boyfriends, spouses, movie buddies — to see "The Hangover," the surprise hit of 2009.

It's about a bachelor party in Las Vegas that soon bungee-jumps into disaster, with one set piece after the next more outrageous and laugh-filled than the one before. Look up over-the-top in the dictionary and it references "The Hangover."

"Bridesmaids" could be construed as women saying, "Oh yeah? Well here's our take on the pre-wedding rituals that lead up to the nuptials and if you want outrageous, while abandoning all semblance of decorum, well, we're going to bring it."

And the women of "Bridesmaids" (or better said, the writers, meaning Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) don't hold back. Let the meltdown begin. And there are scenes that are so brash and raunchy that it's possible to laugh and cringe at the same time.

But then Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Talladega Nights," "Step Brothers") produced the film and, according to reports, couldn't resist putting his oar in, contributing a scene involving vomiting and diarrhea in a monochromatic white-carpeted bridal boutique, no less. At least the man's consistent. Some say his screenplays are facsimiles of the backs of public bathroom stall doors. But that's hearsay and perhaps a bit harsh.

Here's the difference between "Bridesmaids" and films of the Apatow— "Hangover" ilk: the former has at its center a tender, insightful and raw character study. Kristen Wiig's portrayal of Annie is wonderful. Wiig is not only a gifted comedienne, but also a superb actor.

Annie is the designated maid of honor for her best friend forever, Lillian (Maya Rudolph). She is filled with joy and best wishes for her friend, though plagued by an abiding sense of angst regarding her own life. She's adrift. Her one attempt at doing something for herself — she opened a small bakery — was flattened by the recession. She's recently lost her boyfriend, and her sex-buddy, Ted (John Hamm), is a self-absorbed heel. She's having an existential crisis while all about her swirls the intense chaos of pre-wedding planning.

And that's the other interesting aspect to "Bridesmaids": it deconstructs, in a sad, hilarious, sometimes crude way the rituals engaged in by women as they prepare one of their own for the moment when she is to be handed from her father to another man. There's the selection of the bridesmaids' gowns, the bridal gown, the shower, the wedding itself, and all attendant details. It all makes the women a bit crazy — led, of course, by Annie, who is fully prepared to dive into the deep end of an empty pool.

If the film has a flaw, it might be that it strives in its baseness to surpass the guy flicks. It's not a contest that this film should want to win. What "Bridesmaids" does do, that "The Hangover" would never consider, is to possess a central character that is wounded and vulnerable, a woman on the verge. The writers believe, ultimately, in character, and develops, gradually, the idea that sometimes life can seem to conspire not in the affirmative but in the negative. And then, happily, it doesn't. Things once again begin to work out. As they do for Annie. Nice.

African Cats

Grab the youngsters and take them to see "African Cats," a Disneynature production.

The story, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, is nicely told, and since this is Disney, the stars of the film are anthropomorphized, given names such as Sita, Layla, Fang and Mara, who are endowed with human characteristics, to include thought.

In one scene, a cub lion, Mara, looks at her father, Fang, and thinks, "He's the best dad in the world." But then Disney has been humanizing animals in animation, as well as documentaries, for decades, thereby capturing the children's attention while, as in "African Cats," exposing them to greater themes.

Set on an immense savanna in East Africa, the tale follows two families: a pride of lions and a single mother cheetah and her cubs. The lions also are raising cubs, a task that Fang, the alpha male, takes no part in. Just as he doesn't hunt; he only shows up to dine, say, on the zebra du jour.

What makes "African Cats" compelling, especially for young audiences, is the remarkable work of cinematographers Owen Newman and Sophie Darlington. Filmed in high definition, many of the tight shots — a lion's paw, a mother licking and nurturing her cub, a male lion confronting an alligator — inherently pose the question: How was it done, so close and intimate?

It's astonishing footage.

As well, the aerial shots of massive herds of wildebeests migrating across the savanna are breathtaking, these ungainly animals plunging up draws and across the river, driven by an instinct that is incomprehensible.

There also is one scene when the clouds turns dark and cold, lightening splits the sky, and slanting rain falls. Sita and her cubs sit waiting, shivering from the wet, as do all of the animals of the savanna. This moment is contrasted with the magnificent sunrises and sunsets that fill the horizons of these plains. Yet all is framed by the reality that the animals of the savanna face a harsh existence, focused daily on survival.

At no time does the documentary's voice-over become pedantic. And perhaps that's a good thing. To have drifted into explanations about the shrinking habitat of these animals may belong in another movie; however, it's true that species worldwide are facing a challenge (or extinction) that is manmade and so beyond their control.

If the migration route of the wildebeest is altered or truncated, for example, the ripple effect for other animals, such as the big cats of Africa, is significant.

For now, however, as the credits roll, all is good, at least for these two families.

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